A woman seated at a table looking at a smartphone and drinking coffee.
astarot/Shutterstock.com

All day, strange foreign numbers have called your phone. They’re from a country you’ve never visited. Each time the digits change slightly, making it impossible to block them. They ring for just a few seconds before hanging up. You’re tempted to call them back, but you shouldn’t—it’s a scam, and falling for it could cost you dearly.

One Ring to Rule Them All

This approach, called the Wangiri Scam, relies upon your innate curiosity. Many people would instinctively return a missed call—even from a mysterious international number. And the repetitive nature of the scam (it’s not unusual to receive dozens of missed calls in a single day) adds to the intrigue and pressure.

Missed Wangiri calls on an iPhone.
A small taste of what it’s like to be deluged with Wangiri calls.

What happens if you cave? Your call is routed to an expensive premium rate number. You are then coerced into staying on the line for as long as possible. The longer you hold on the line, the more money they ultimately make.

To accomplish this, the scammers rely on a mix of social engineering and psychology. Some victims have reported being told they’ve won a prize—usually money—and are encouraged to wait on the line to claim it. Others merely test the victim’s patience by subjecting them to hold music without any other incentives.

Wangiri scams originated in Japan. The term itself is Japanese for “one (ring) and cut.” And as the name would imply, it’s a genuinely international scam, with victims distributed across the world. Warnings about the scam have appeared in the U.K., Canadian, Irish, and New Zealand media, among others. In the U.S., the FCC has warned consumers about it.

Adding to the Wangiri scam’s cosmopolitan credentials is the disparate number of countries these calls emerge from. According to a 2018 article on Which?, victims have reported receiving one-ring calls from developing African nations like Mauritania, Liberia, Comoros, and Chad, as well as tiny Pacific nations like the Cook Islands and Nauru (population 10,756).

Coral rocks on Anibare beach in Nauru.
Nauru, in case you were wondering. Robert Szymanski/Shutterstock.com

That said, you shouldn’t assume every Wangiri call will come from a developing nation. At the start of the month, thousands of U.K. residents (including this writer) were bombarded by fraudulent phone calls from Swiss phone numbers.

How to Protect Yourself

Ultimately, there’s only one way to protect yourself from this scam, and it’s to refrain from returning calls from numbers you don’t recognize—particularly those from international numbers. It’s not unreasonable to assume anyone who urgently wishes to speak to you will have their digits stored on your phone’s contacts list, or will leave a voicemail or send a text message.

Another sensible assumption: If you’re deluged with mysterious missed calls, chances are other people are, too. Googling that number will typically show you if other people are in the situation, allowing you to confirm your suspicions that it’s a scam.

Feedback about a scam phone number found via a search engine.

If you find yourself repeatedly barraged with Wangiri calls, you might also want to consider changing your phone number and limiting who gets it. Phone scammers frequently obtain phone numbers from data leaks and marketing databases, both easily obtained through legitimate and illegitimate means. It’s the former that’s most pertinent to this scam.

Over the past few years, hundreds of millions—and potentially billions—of people have found their details leaked to the Internet as a result of clumsy security practices. Earlier this year, unauthorized persons gained access to a database belonging to one company, People Data Labs, that contained 1.2 billion records. These included email addresses, SSNs, and yes, phone numbers.

It’s always a good idea to plug your details into Troy Hunt’s Have I Been Pwned to see if you’ve fallen victim to a data breach. Once you know the situation, you can start taking protective measures.

Another sensible idea is to contact your phone company and request they place a cap on the amount of money you can spend out of your plan. Should you accidentally butt-dial one of these Wangiri numbers, it’ll limit your losses to a more manageable amount.

And if you can, consider asking your phone network to block all outbound calls to international numbers.

Finally, if you have an iPhone, the new Silence Unknown Callers option in iOS 13 can help.

If You’ve Been Stung

What happens if the worst happens and you return the Wangiri call? In that situation, I’d strongly encourage you to call your phone provider and explain the situation. Some networks, like Vodafone in the U.K., will refund all charges made to a proven fraudulent number within thirty days.

You might also find that some networks without an explicit Wangiri refund policy will reimburse victims on a goodwill basis. Of course, this is entirely contingent on how generous your phone provider is feeling—and perhaps your ability to spin a convincing sob story.

If they’re unwilling to refund the charges, they might be amenable to letting you spread the cost of the call over several months, particularly if you’ve run up an unusually large bill.

Finally, you should report your experience to the relevant authorities, who will be able to investigate. In the U.S., that’s the FCC. In the U.K., you should contact Action Fraud.

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes is a tech journalist with bylines in The Register, The Next Web, The Daily Beast, Gizmodo UK, The Daily Dot, and more.
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