MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Before I list the most common phone scams according to the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance, I want to share something the department's consumer advocates have said about the behavior of phone scammers, no matter which phone scam they use.
It's this: every phone scammer's main goal is to get you to say "yes" or "OK" as quickly as possible. They'll do that through the use of misleading and persuasive rhetoric like:
"You've won money in the lottery!"
"You've won a free trip! All you have to pay is a prize tax to receive it."
"Don't tell anyone."
"You have to pay us now in order to receive our special offer."
"You trust me, right?"
"We need to confirm your personal/billing information."
"If you don't pay us now, we will sue you (or you'll be arrested)."
You'll hear one or more of these gems when (not if, but when) you're solicited by one of the five most common phone scams:
* GRANDPARENT/LOVE INTEREST PHONE SCAM. The scammer pretends to be a family member or love interest in need of money. Easy fix here, people: if the call's not coming from your loved one's phone number, hang up and call your loved one's actual number to check on him or her. Also, if the love interest is someone you've never met before, that person is only in love with the prospect of getting your money.
* LOTTERY PHONE SCAM. This also comes in the form of an unsolicited letter or email. The scammer claims you've won a lottery -- often a foreign lottery (there are no foreign lotteries, by the way) -- but you have to pay something up front in order to collect your winnings. One: you never have to pay to collect a prize. That's why it's called a "prize." Two: a real lottery requires you to initiate the first action: buying a ticket. You can't win a lottery you didn't enter.
The letter version of this scam often includes a check and a request that you deposit the check, then transfer a certain amount back to cover the "fee." The check is counterfeit. It will bounce. You'll be liable for passing a bad check...and you just transferred legitimate funds out of your account to a scammer that can't be easily traced.
* IRS PHONE SCAM. The scammer claims to be with the tax agency, saying you owe back taxes. They demand payment or else there will be legal action. Read/watch this. It's my definitive story on this scam.
* UTILITY BILL PHONE SCAM. The scammers pretend to be with your local utility. They claim you have an outstanding balance on your service. They threaten to cut off your residential or commercial service unless you arrange immediate payment over the phone. Your utility will never contact you this way, even if you really do owe a balance. If there's any doubt, hang up, then initiate your own call to your real utility company.
* "CAN YOU HEAR ME?" PHONE SCAM. Here's my story on this scam and how it has solicited consumers right here in Memphis.
You can defeat each of these simply by not answering calls you do not recognize on your caller ID, even if the area code is familiar. Scammers use robo-dialers to randomly call numbers. When you answer -- even if you do not fall for the scam -- you confirm to the robo-dialer that yours is a legitimate, working phone number. The scammers will catalog your number and sell it on mass marketing lists to other scammers and telemarketers. You will see a spike in these scam calls.
Know this: the less you answer calls you don't recognize, the more they will taper off and disappear. Scammers will not continue to solicit a number that does not generate a human interaction.