Telephone scams more numerous and dangerous in 2017

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‘The neighbor scam’ shows a triple-digit increase

Unwanted telephone calls to consumers increased 76 percent in 2017, according to a data analysis compiled by Hiya, a free call-screening app.

These mostly robocalls can represent annoying interruptions, or they can be dangerous scams that are designed to steal victims' money or identities. This year, Hiya has identified a new trend it calls "the neighbor scam."

Because smartphones display the number, and often the state, of the caller, many consumers simply don't answer calls from numbers or areas that aren't familiar. But "spoofing" technology allows a clever scammer to make his number appear to be local, making it more likely the recipient will answer.

"Because it mimics the first six digits of a user’s phone number -- the area code and the following three digits – people may think a nearby friend or business is calling,” Jonathan Nelson, Senior Product Manager of Reputation Data at Hiya, told ConsumerAffairs.

The scammer placing the call, usually from outside the country, hopes consumers think they recognize the number as familiar even though it’s not a number saved in their phone.

760 percent increase

Nelson says this tactic has increased 760 percent over the last 12 months. The most common area codes spoofed using the neighbor scam include 404 (Atlanta), 407 (Orlando), 214 (Dallas), 203 (Connecticut), and 210 (San Antonio).

Once a potential victim gets on the line, Nelson says any number of scams may then follow. One of the most dangerously effective is "the utility scam." This scheme takes advantage of rising gas and electricity bills and is aimed at stealing financial information.

"The tactics they use include offers to lower utility bills, threats to shut off electricity, and offers for federal program assistance," Nelson said.

By Hiya's estimate, there were 10.2 billion unwanted phone calls to U.S. consumers in 2016 and the utility scam increased 109 percent to make up the largest share of them.

"Scammers are constantly looking for new ways to defraud consumers, but the utility company scam has shown to consistently be popular year after year," Nelson said.

Just hang up

Because the U.S. was hit with two hurricanes in 2017, Hiya says the "flood insurance scam" also showed a big increase this year. In that scheme, a scammer calls consumers in hurricane-prone areas and tries to collect fake "overdue" flood insurance premiums.

Another favorite among scammers this year was the "free cruise scam." This scheme dangles the promise of a free luxury cruise but requires anyone accepting it to pay a number of upfront fees. And of course, there really is no free cruise.

As always, the best defense against these scams is a healthy amount of skepticism. Nelson says scammers generally try to scare their victims, or they promise them something that's just too good to be true.

In either case, consumers shouldn't hesitate to hang up when they answer a call and hear a recorded voice, even if the call looks like it's coming from a neighbor.

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