Mine is — and I can’t stop it
In March, the IRS contacted me to let me know someone had filed my taxes for me. Someone had finagled the math on a tax return to get a refund in my name. Worse, someone had gotten enough of my personal information to file as me.
I was frightened. What else had they done in my name?
Identity theft had happened to me! Someone else had filed my taxes to get a refund. I cried. I filed paperwork as the IRS told me to do. I worried. I called each of the three credit bureaus and froze my credit. I visited identitytheft.gov and jumped through all the hoops. I filed a police report.
Fleetingly, I thought that if my taxes were already filed, maybe I didn’t have to file my own and pay the taxes I certainly owed. But I paid, if only to assert my own identity. I was thankful IRS had recognized the fraud and alerted me to it.
Then just yesterday, someone else alerted me that my identity had been stolen another way. Someone was using my cell phone number to phish for information.
Here’s how I knew
I was deeply engrossed in work when a local call appeared on my cell phone. I answered it. A woman, a stranger, told me I had just called her.
“No, I didn’t,” I had responded. “I’m pretty sure I’d know if I had made a call.”
(I was at work at the time and I hadn’t “sleep-called,” as David from the AT&T fraud department suggested I might have when I later spoke with him. He was joking.)
“I noticed it was a local call,” the kind stranger had continued, “and the caller identified itself as Apple, wanting all sorts of information about my account. I don’t think many people would have been stupid enough to give it.”
When I told her I’d gotten a similar call last week accusing me of making a call when I hadn’t (but that woman wasn’t as nice and had provided no details), she suggested I call my cell phone provider to tell them someone was using my number.
“Someone’s stolen your identity, honey,” she said. “You need to get this figured out.”
Sigh. I would have to waste another lunch break to try to stop someone from being me.
So I called my cell phone provider. I explained the problem, and Allison, the company representative, said I had two choices:
- Change my phone number.
- Talk with someone at AT&T to report the problem to find a solution.
Wasn’t I doing the second one already?
I suggested I may need to do both but that I should start with №2. (I could imagine the nightmare changing my phone number would be.) She agreed and sent me to the fraud department. I’m so glad I started with that option. I do not have to change my phone number, and I don’t have to fear someone has stolen my identity (again). Here’s why.
It was caller ID spoofing
When I again explained why I was calling, David from AT&T was all calm and humor as he told me I had no real worry — but no real solution either.
“It’s likely a spoofing system that randomly picked your phone number to make spam calls,” he told me. “The government is trying to crack down on spam calling, but someone with too much time on their hands is always a step ahead.”
So this wasn’t personal. It was a random selection. It’s not identity theft; it’s more like identity borrowing. Without your permission. So, yeah, it is identity theft of a sort. Imagine being forced to knock on your neighbor’s door with your customary friendly smile while a thief crouches behind you ready to attack your trusting neighbor when she opens the door.
Except you don’t know caller ID spoofing is happening.
According to the Federal Communications Commission:
Spoofing is when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise their identity.
Scammers often use neighbor spoofing so it appears that an incoming call is coming from a local number, or spoof a number from a company or a government agency that you may already know and trust.
If you answer, they use scam scripts to try to steal your money or valuable personal information, which can be used in fraudulent activity.
“They’re trying to figure out how they’re doing it,” David from AT&T continued. “There’s a chance that you’ll get a call from your own phone number.”
I would be so tempted to answer!
How to protect yourself from phone scams
David did suggest I do three things to protect myself — even though I can’t protect others from calls that appear to come from me. (Although I could write a blog post and share these tips with my readers, of course. ;))
- Don’t answer calls by numbers you don’t recognize. Block the numbers of any spam attempts. (You can always unblock numbers you find you need.)
- Call the government’s “do not call list” and enroll. You must call from the phone you wish to enroll, and if it’s a phone you share, then “do not call” covers all of you. Simply call 1–888–382–1222 and follow the instructions. Once you’re enrolled, it may take 31 days to stop spam calls; if you get calls after that date, you can call the number to report them.
- Add an app to your phone to detect and block fraudulent calls and alert you as to the nature of a caller (spam risk, telemarketer, nonprofit, surveys, political callers, etc.). You can make a more informed decision to answer, send to voicemail, block, etc.
The FCC has asked mobile carriers and phone companies to implement new technology that should lower the number of robocalls we get, according to Clark.com, a website that showcases advice from Clark Howard, a consumer advocate and money expert who shares tips on the radio.
“All voice service providers have been asked to have the spoof robocall-fighting ‘STIR/SHAKEN’ technology in place by no later than June 30, 2021,” the site indicates.
With the STIR/SHAKEN technology, phone companies can verify that the caller ID information transmitted with a call matches the caller’s phone number. The dual technologies won’t stop robocalls, but they will show consumers that the phone number that appears on the screen is, indeed, the caller.
Apps from phone providers
I decided to download AT&T’s Call Protect app, which also includes mobile security, but if AT&T isn’t your provider, you have options too:
- Scam Shield, advanced “scam blocking” for T-Mobile, Metro, and Sprint customers
- Call Filter for Verizon customers to screen incoming calls and block spam
- Call Guardian, call blocking, labeling, and identification for U.S. Cellular customers
- Google Project Fi, call blocking options for Project Fi wireless service
Third-party apps to protect calls
- YouMail protects against scams and phishing, has versions for personal phones and businesses
- Hiya provides caller ID and call blocking for individuals and businesses
- Nomorobo is a free service for voice over Internet protocol (VoiP) landlines that boasts of having stopped nearly 1 billion robocalls; it offers service for mobile phones for $1.99 a month
All of the apps are free but have paid versions as well.
I hate that my phone number has been used for caller ID spoofing. I hate that someone might become a victim of a scam because they trusted my number. I hate that I can’t stop it.
But as much as I hate knowing my phone number is being used in a scam, I am thankful to the two women who took the time to call back the number that appeared to call them.
How else would I have known that someone was using my identity in such a manner? Just as I would not have known someone had tried to get a tax refund in my name had not the IRS contacted me.
If nothing else, this latest incident spurred me to seek help from my phone carrier, made me more aware, and gave me steps to protect myself.
And now you can protect yourself, too.