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The 5 most common phone scams and how to avoid them

June 10, 2012 at 2:03 PM ET

British Postal Museum & Archive /

By Jessica Citizen

Tecca

While so many spams and scams these days concentrate on email and other online pursuits, some fraudsters are sticking to what they know best: the telephone. We've bundled up the five worst phone scams that are still making the rounds, throwing in some solid tips to help you avoid the impact.

1. Charities

The phone rings. The caller, who's asking for money, claims to be from the "Childhood Cancer Fantasy Fund." She explains the charity in some detail and offers you a generous gift in exchange for your donation. Perhaps it's a lottery ticket with a large and enticing prize! All you need to do is hand over your credit card details.

This is arguably the lowest form of scamming — appealing to your good side in an effort to make a few bucks. The worst examples occur in the wake of a disaster, as vultures descend to capitalize on everybody's grief. Unfortunately, charity scammers don't only strike when times are bad.

Fortunately, it's easy to avoid becoming a victim by adhering to one simple rule: Never make donations over the phone, no matter how nicely the caller may ask and how tempting the reward. No charity will run a phone-only fundraiser, so ask the caller to please point you to a website with more information. If it's a legitimate organization, this won't be a problem.

2. Law and order

Another popular phone scam preys on the human desire to escape trouble, whatever the cost. The caller tells you that there is an outstanding warrant for your arrest and that you must pay a fine right now or risk a jail term. You'll have to provide your credit card details for an over-the-phone payment and perhaps a few personal details for "identity verification." Your full name, date of birth and Social Security number will suffice — in other words, just enough for someone to commit identity fraud.

There are a couple of variations of this scam that have done the rounds recently, striking drivers who have allegedly incurred red light camera fines or penalizing struggling Americans who have taken out short-term loans. Callers will often know a startling amount of information about you, but it won't necessarily all add up. Listen closely for errors in what callers say, and always ask for more information. Keep in mind that debt collectors do not have the power to arrest anyone! Get a contact name and phone number, and ask to call them back. Then call your local police station and report them, rather than the other way around.

3. Winning big

Whether it's an around-the-world trip, a new car or a pile of cash, getting a call saying you've won something is pretty exciting — exciting enough, perhaps, to give away your personal information and bank details, compromising your family's safety. That'll bring you back down to earth quickly.

Taking inspiration from the classic Nigerian prince scam, this sort of prize-winning hoax is a doozy. The caller claims that you have won something so incredible that it doesn't matter that you cannot remember entering the lottery. Because you don't have the winning ticket, however, you'll need to prove your identity, so please hand over your full name, address, date of birth and Social Security number. Sometimes, the prize is awkward to ship, so they'll need your credit card information as well to cover the postage and handling (but don't worry, because the prize itself is worth much more than you'll pay!).

Predictably, though, once that information has left your lips, the scammer has his prize, and you're left with nothing. A safer plan: Don't crack open the champagne just yet, and make sure you check all of the fine print first. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

4. Work at home

It sounds like the best thing in the world — a phone call offering you a job to work from home. You'll only need to put in a little effort, but the payoff is huge. It sounds so great that you don't really think much about how the caller got your number or how they knew you were out of work.

This scam pops up fairly frequently in email inboxes, but it occurs over the phone as well. Generally, you will be required to make an initial investment to secure your employment. You can do that by either handing over your credit card details or by making an untraceable cash transfer through a service such as Western Union.

Occasionally, the "jobs" advertised are legitimate. More often, they are fronts for money laundering or other dirty deeds. You may be asked to sell items via eBay, make sales calls for assorted products, or make bank deposits into certain accounts. Even more often than that, however, is that the moment your money changes hands, your so-called employer mysteriously disappears.

5. Bank alerts

You've gotten a voicemail saying your bank card has been suspended; please call this toll-free number to activate it. As a bank is a pretty secure place, you'll have to jump through a few hoops to prove that you really are the account holder, so you'll need to hand over all of your account details, your SSN, full name, date of birth, address, phone numbers — the works.

By now, surely you've guessed: This one's a scam, too, and you've just handed over all of the required information for someone to open a bank account in your name before setting about destroying your credit history. They'll probably max out your credit card while they're at it, too.

While this style of bank scam is nothing new, it's recently undergone a bit of a makeover. As voicemail becomes more prevalent, scammers no longer need to speak directly to their victims. Instead, they ask you to dial a new number, making the call seem safer. Advice given to everybody looking to avoid phone scams is told to never give out personal information over the phone, unless you initiated the call. By dialing the provided toll-free number, you're more likely to believe you're contacting a legitimate business, and all that good advice will evaporate.

The best advice in this situation is to ignore the call. Pop into your local branch and get the teller to check your card for you. I'm sure she'll find there's no suspension on your funds.

Be cautious

Use your common sense whenever answering the phone. If something sounds unusual or too good to be true, don't fall for the trap! When in doubt, don't hand over any cash, personal details or other sensitive information.

Ask for as much information as you can — the full name of the charity and some contact details — and do your research. Look up the charity online, search for the phone number you were given, and use databases such as 800notes.com to see if anybody has any experience with your caller.

If this tweaks your conscience, look up your local Red Cross or Cancer Council or Make-A-Wish Foundation and pledge some money directly. You'll feel better knowing the money is going exactly where it should be, not into the pockets of a low-life scammer.

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