Phone call scams are too common. But they’re easier to spot than you might think. If someone calls you and claims to be from the IRS, your bank, Microsoft, or any other company or government agency, it’s probably a scam. Companies and government agencies will almost never call you out of nowhere.

The IRS Isn’t Calling You For Money

Some scammers may call you and claim to be from the IRS. They may say you owe money to the government, demanding you pay immediately without the opportunity to go through any due process. They may even ask for a credit or debit card number over the phone, and threaten to sue you or warn that the police will arrest you if you don’t pay up. These scammers want your money, and perhaps your personal information—but they aren’t the IRS.

RELATED: PSA: Don't Trust Caller ID -- It Can Be Faked

IRS scams often have pretty good window dressing. The scammers may give you fake badge numbers. The scammers often fake their caller ID number—yes, you can’t even trust caller ID—to make it look like the IRS is actually calling you.

Worse yet, the scammers may actually have your social security number if your personal details have leaked in one of the many massive personal data breaches from large corporations and government agencies. They may quote your SSN at you to seem more legitimate.

Don’t trust people who call and claim to represent the IRS or any other government agency. If someone claiming to be from the IRS calls you, it’s probably a scam. Say you’ll call them back, but don’t use whatever number they provide. Instead, visit the IRS’s website, call the official phone number from the IRS’s website, and talk to someone that’s actually from the IRS about the call you just received.

No One’s Calling to Give You Free Stuff

This one should be obvious: The “free vacation” or “free prize” scams have been around for quite a while. You’ll receive a phone call telling you you won a free cruise, flight, or an all expenses paid vacation. You haven’t.

These scams are pretty simple. That free trip is too good to be true. If you try to accept it—and you shouldn’t do this, you should just hang up—you’ll find that there’s a fee involved. You’ll have to hand over your credit card number to pay a fee for shipping or processing in order to collect the prize. You’ll pay them and they won’t ever send you anything. The scammers may also just want your personal information.

Just hang up. You’ll never win a prize that you never actually entered a contest for. And a real prize won’t require you pay before you receive it.

Microsoft and Apple Won’t Call to Give You Tech Support

Tech support scams are still out there, too. A company may call you claiming to be from Windows technical support, or perhaps even Mac technical support. The caller will tell you they detected something wrong with your computer and lead you to some under the hood software like Event Viewer, which looks technical and scary if you’re unfamiliar with it.

The company will then walk you through downloading remote connection software like TeamViewer and letting them into your PC. You’ll give them access to your PC and they’ll “fix it” for you—possibly just installing malware. They’ll also take your credit card number and charge you for the “service”.

Don’t let these scammers into your computer or give them a single cent. While a government agency, company, or financial institution might actually want to contact you in some rare situations, Microsoft and Apple will never contact you about your PC or Mac.

RELATED: Tell Your Relatives: No, Microsoft Won't Call You About Your Computer

More Scams

There are an endless number of different scams just like this, but the common thread is the same: someone calls you, unsolicited. Be skeptical whenever you get a call claiming to be from a government agency, corporation, or any other organization. Here are more scams to look out for:

  • Loan Offers: A company may call you and offer loans or ask for personal information. They do this to acquire your identity information—like your social security number—and use it for identity theft. They may use the info to acquire credit in your name. No one legitimate will call and offer you a loan out of nowhere.
  • Fake Debt Collectors: Someone may call and claim to be a debt collector trying to get information or money from you. The FTC offers some advice for standing up to fake debt collectors.
  • Phony Charities: People may call and spin a story for you about someone in need, asking for money. They may claim to be calling on behalf of a cancer charity, a policeman’s association, or something else. Don’t give personal information or financial details to such a caller. If you want to donate, find a legitimate charity and ensure it’s real before you give money.
  • Arrest Threats: To make you more eager to pay up, some scammers may claim to have a warrant for your arrest and demand money to make it go away. No law enforcement agency will ever call to demand money from you.

How to Tell If a Call is Real

Companies may occasionally call you, sure. Even if you think a phone call might be real, you should take some precautions. You might want to get more information about what this is about, including the name of the person and company calling and a number you can call back.

Once you have this, go online and find the organization’s official phone number on their website. If the scammer claims to be from the IRS, visit the IRS website. If the scammer claims to be from your bank, visit your bank’s website. If the scammer claims to be from your local utility company, visit that website. Call the phone number on the website and explain you were contacted by someone claiming to be from the organization. There’s a good chance you’ll be told you were just called by scammers.

Image Credit: Dana Voss, Ken LundHans Christian Haaland, Mike Mozart

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »