October 1, 2018

Most of us have been trained to be wary of clicking on links and attachments that arrive in emails unexpected, but it’s easy to forget scam artists are constantly dreaming up innovations that put a new shine on old-fashioned telephone-based phishing scams. Think you’re too smart to fall for one? Think again: Even technology experts are getting taken in by some of the more recent schemes (or very nearly).

Matt Haughey is the creator of the community Weblog MetaFilter and a writer at Slack. Haughey banks at a small Portland credit union, and last week he got a call on his mobile phone from an 800-number that matched the number his credit union uses.

Actually, he got three calls from the same number in rapid succession. He ignored the first two, letting them both go to voicemail. But he picked up on the third call, thinking it must be something urgent and important. After all, his credit union had rarely ever called him.

Haughey said he was greeted by a female voice who explained that the credit union had blocked two phony-looking charges in Ohio made to his debit/ATM card. She proceeded to then read him the last four digits of the card that was currently in his wallet. It checked out.

Haughey told the lady that he would need a replacement card immediately because he was about to travel out of state to California. Without missing a beat, the caller said he could keep his card and that the credit union would simply block any future charges that weren’t made in either Oregon or California.

This struck Haughey as a bit off. Why would the bank say they were freezing his card but then say they could keep it open for his upcoming trip? It was the first time the voice inside his head spoke up and said, “Something isn’t right, Matt.” But, he figured, the customer service person at the credit union was trying to be helpful: She was doing him a favor, he reasoned.

The caller then read his entire home address to double check it was the correct destination to send a new card at the conclusion of his trip. Then the caller said she needed to verify his mother’s maiden name. The voice in his head spoke out in protest again, but then banks had asked for this in the past. He provided it.

Next she asked him to verify the three digit security code printed on the back of his card. Once more, the voice of caution in his brain was silenced: He’d given this code out previously in the few times he’d used his card to pay for something over the phone.

Then she asked him for his current card PIN, just so she could apply that same PIN to the new card being mailed out, she assured him. Ding, ding, ding went the alarm bells in his head. Haughey hesitated, then asked the lady to repeat the question. When she did, he gave her the PIN, and she assured him she’d make sure his existing PIN also served as the PIN for his new card.

Haughey said after hanging up he felt fairly certain the entire transaction was legitimate, although the part about her requesting the PIN kept nagging at him.

“I balked at challenging her because everything lined up,” he said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “But when I hung up the phone and told a friend about it, he was like, ‘Oh man, you just got scammed, there’s no way that’s real.'”

Now more concerned, Haughey visited his credit union to make sure his travel arrangements were set. When he began telling the bank employee what had transpired, he could tell by the look on her face that his friend was right.

A review of his account showed that there were indeed two fraudulent charges on his account from earlier that day totaling $3,400, but neither charge was from Ohio. Rather, someone used a counterfeit copy of his debit card to spend more than $2,900 at a Kroger near Atlanta, and to withdraw almost $500 from an ATM in the same area. After the unauthorized charges, he had just $300 remaining in his account.

“People I’ve talked to about this say there’s no way they’d fall for that, but when someone from a trustworthy number calls, says they’re from your small town bank, and sounds incredibly professional, you’d fall for it, too,” Haughey said.

Fraudsters can use a variety of open-source and free tools to fake or “spoof” the number displayed as the caller ID, lending legitimacy to phone phishing schemes. Often, just sprinkling in a little foreknowledge of the target’s personal details — SSNs, dates of birth, addresses and other information that can be purchased for a nominal fee from any one of several underground sites that sell such data — adds enough detail to the call to make it seem legitimate.


Cabel Sasser is founder of a Mac and iOS software company called Panic Inc. Sasser said he almost got scammed recently after receiving a call that appeared to be the same number as the one displayed on the back of his Wells Fargo ATM card.

“I answered, and a Fraud Department agent said my ATM card has just been used at a Target in Minnesota, was I on vacation?” Sasser recalled in a tweet about the experience.

What Sasser didn’t mention in his tweet was that his corporate debit card had just been hit with two instances of fraud: Someone had charged $10,000 worth of metal air ducts to his card. When he disputed the charge, his bank sent a replacement card.

“I used the new card at maybe four places and immediately another fraud charge popped up for like $20,000 in custom bathtubs,” Sasser recalled in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “The morning this scam call came in I was spending time trying to figure out who might have lost our card data and was already in that frame of mind when I got the call about fraud on my card.”

And so the card-replacement dance began.

“Is the card in your possession?,” the caller asked. It was. The agent then asked him to read the three-digit CVV code printed on the back of his card.

After verifying the CVV, the agent offered to expedite a replacement, Sasser said. “First he had to read some disclosures. Then he asked me to key in a new PIN. I picked a random PIN and entered it. Verified it again. Then he asked me to key in my current PIN.”

That made Sasser pause. Wouldn’t an actual representative from Wells Fargo’s fraud division already have access to his current PIN?

“It’s just to confirm the change,” the caller told him. “I can’t see what you enter.”

“But…you’re the bank,” he countered. “You have my PIN, and you can see what I enter…”

The caller had a snappy reply for this retort as well.

“Only the IVR [interactive voice response] system can see it,” the caller assured him. “Hey, if it helps, I have all of your account info up…to confirm, the last four digits of your Social Security number are XXXX, right?”

Sure enough, that was correct. But something still seemed off. At this point, Sasser said he told the agent he would call back by dialing the number printed on his ATM card — the same number his mobile phone was already displaying as the source of the call. After doing just that, the representative who answered said there had been no such fraud detected on his account.

“I was just four key presses away from having all my cash drained by someone at an ATM,” Sasser recalled. A visit to the local Wells Fargo branch before his trip confirmed that he’d dodged a bullet.

“The Wells person was super surprised that I bailed out when I did, and said most people are 100 percent taken by this scam,” Sasser said.


In Sasser’s case, the scammer was a live person, but some equally convincing voice phishing schemes — sometimes called “vishing” — use a combination of humans and automation. Consider the following vishing attempt, reported to KrebsOnSecurity in August by “Curt,” a longtime reader from Canada.

“I’m both a TD customer and Rogers phone subscriber and just experienced what I consider a very convincing and/or elaborate social engineering/vishing attempt,” Curt wrote. “At 7:46pm I received a call from (647-475-1636) purporting to be from Credit Alert (alertservice.ca) on behalf of TD Canada Trust offering me a free 30-day trial for a credit monitoring service.”

The caller said her name was Jen Hansen, and began the call with what Curt described as “over-the-top courtesy.”

“It sounded like a very well-scripted Customer Service call, where they seem to be trying so hard to please that it seems disingenuous,” Curt recalled. “But honestly it still sounded very much like a real person, not like a text to speech voice which sounds robotic. This sounded VERY natural.”

Ms. Hansen proceeded to tell Curt that TD Bank was offering a credit monitoring service free for one month, and that he could cancel at any time. To enroll, he only needed to confirm his home mailing address.

“I’m mega paranoid (I read krebsonsecurity.com daily) and asked her to tell me what address I had on their file, knowing full well my home address can be found in a variety of ways,” Curt wrote in an email to this author. “She said, ‘One moment while I access that information.'”

After a short pause, a new voice came on the line.

“And here’s where I realized I was finally talking to a real human — a female with a slight French accent — who read me my correct address,” Curt recalled.

After another pause, Ms. Hansen’s voice came back on the line. While she was explaining that part of the package included free antivirus and anti-keylogging software, Curt asked her if he could opt-in to receive his credit reports while opting-out of installing the software.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” the voice identifying itself as Ms. Hansen replied. Curt repeated himself. After another, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that,” Curt asked Ms. Hansen where she was from.

The voice confirmed what was indicated by the number displayed on his caller ID: That she was calling from Barrie, Ontario. Trying to throw the robot voice further off-script, Curt asked what the weather was like in Barrie, Ontario. Another Long pause. The voice continued describing the offered service.

“I asked again about the weather, and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have that information. Would you like me to transfer you to someone that does?’ I said yes and again the real person with a French accent started speaking, ignoring my question about the weather and saying that if I’d like to continue with the offer I needed to provide my date of birth. This is when I hung up and immediately called TD Bank.” No one from TD had called him, they assured him.


And then there are the fully-automated voice phishing scams, which can be be equally convincing. Last week I heard from “Jon,” a cybersecurity professional with more than 30 years of experience under his belt (Jon asked to leave his last name out of this story).

Answering a call on his mobile device from a phone number in Missouri, Jon was greeted with the familiar four-note AT&T jingle, followed by a recorded voice saying AT&T was calling to prevent his phone service from being suspended for non-payment.

“It then prompted me to enter my security PIN to be connected to a billing department representative,” Jon said. “My number was originally an AT&T number (it reports as Cingular Wireless) but I have been on T-Mobile for several years, so clearly a scam if I had any doubt. However, I suspect that the average Joe would fall for it.”


Just as you would never give out personal information if asked to do so via email, never give out any information about yourself in response to an unsolicited phone call.

Like email scams, phone phishing usually invokes an element of urgency in a bid to get people to let their guard down. If a call has you worried that there might be something wrong and you wish to call them back, don’t call the number offered to you by the caller. If you want to reach your bank, call the number on the back of your card. If it’s another company you do business with, go to the company’s site and look up their main customer support number.

Unfortunately, this may take a little work. It’s not just banks and phone companies that are being impersonated by fraudsters. Reports on social media suggest many consumers also are receiving voice phishing scams that spoof customer support numbers at Apple, Amazon and other big-name tech companies. In many cases, the scammers are polluting top search engine results with phony 800-numbers for customer support lines that lead directly to fraudsters.

These days, scam calls happen on my mobile so often that I almost never answer my phone unless it appears to come from someone in my contacts list. The Federal Trade Commission’s do-not-call list does not appear to have done anything to block scam callers, and the major wireless carriers seem to be pretty useless in blocking incessant robocalls, even when the scammers are impersonating the carriers themselves, as in Jon’s case above.

I suspect people my age (mid-40s) and younger also generally let most unrecognized calls go to voicemail. It seems to be a very different reality for folks from an older generation, many of whom still primarily call friends and family using land lines, and who will always answer a ringing phone whenever it is humanly possible to do so.

It’s a good idea to advise your loved ones to ignore calls unless they appear to come from a friend or family member, and to just hang up the moment the caller starts asking for personal information.

218 thoughts on “Voice Phishing Scams Are Getting More Clever

  1. Steve

    Has no one heard of NoMoRobo? Intercepts illegitimate calls after 1 ring. Free for landlines. $1.99/mo. for cell phones. Works great. Google it.

    1. Jim K

      NoMoRobo is a fantastic service, and I use it (on the recommendation from Vonage), however not all landline providers will work with NoMoRobo… Cox Communications does, MagicJack does not..
      Most all cell phone providers do, I believe, because you just install their app on your phone (iOS and Android only).
      I used to get 20+ robo calls per week on my landline (Vonage), and now I am down to a couple per week, and almost every one of them gets intercepted by NoMoRobo after the 1st ring so I don’t even have to answer it..
      We can also look at 800Notes.com to see if that number is likely a scammer..

      1. Boraxo

        Nomorobo is completely useless on mobile phones. It blocked 0/10 call from spoof #s and identified maybe 1 of 20 telemarket calls during the 2 week trial. I cancelled it before the trial ended. Don’t waste your time or $$ on this product. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to thwart the robospammers.

        1. Ron

          I have it on my android and it works just fine. Not EVERY ROBO call will end up being blocked, I admit. That is why I report the numbers (to NOMOROBO) that “get through” and after reporting I never get that number calling me again.

  2. Kevin

    And this is exactly why I never answer such phone calls. If I do not get it in writing they can eat my shorts.

  3. Ethan

    My policies (no exceptions) are that I don’t verify myself to someone who calls me and I don’t call numbers supplied to me in messages. It is surprising and disappointing how many times I’ve had to reject legitimate calls from financial institutions under the first policy. But I’ve also never had an emergency so dire I couldn’t just call them back at a number I got from their website, my latest statement or my card and I don’t expect I ever will.

  4. Bob Williams

    It’s interesting to me that the thing Haughey considered “off” is exactly what Chase did with a card of mine when they detected a fraudulent charge just before I was about to travel. I got a fraud alert by email and text just after midnight on Saturday. After I responded to the email, they called me. I told them I was leaving on a trip that morning, and that the card was a hotel rewards card for a hotel I was going to be staying at during my trip – so the agent said they could keep it active until the end of my trip, but decline charges from anywhere other than my destination state, and send me a new card.

    1. JimK

      My Credit Card was compromised (Thanks a lot, NewEgg!!!) and the issuer is sending me a new card but is allowing me to continue using the old one until the new one comes in.. They will just be extra cautious about what not-in-person charges are permitted to come through.

  5. jay

    I got a text from my bank saying my Visa debit card had been compromised. I had just validated my new card a few days prior so I was pretty sure it was a scam. The number I was given to call was in the 210 area code, my bank uses 800 numbers.

    I always call the international number since long distance doesn’t cost on a cell phone, an 800 number could be hijacked and rerouted to God knows where. The bank confirmed it was a scam and added the 201 number to the list.

  6. K. M. Peterson

    An additional piece of information, though perhaps this is too close to just being pedantic: any number delivered via Caller ID that claims to be a toll-free number has been manipulated (perhaps legitimately). A toll-free number technically can’t initiate a phone call. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to set a TFN as the identity of a call, but it always means that someone made a decision to mask the actual source of a call.

  7. Max Power

    Over the years I have had many interactions with various financial institutions but I don’t ever remember, not even once, being asked for my existing card PIN over the phone. There may have been a few times when I was asked to type in a PIN for a future-issued card.

    I think there needs to be greater awareness to the fact that you will never be asked to enter a current card PIN on anything but some kind of a secure terminal. Any other types of requests should always be ignored.

  8. Squeegee Beckenheim

    I am a Trainer for the Fraud and Disputes Department at the Customer Service Center of one of the largest banks in the world.

    Our Fraud representatives that answer your phone calls or make a call out to you do have access to much of your personal identity and card information. However, we NEVER provide any of your personal information over the phone unless you speak it first.

    Also, our reps do NOT have the capability to see your PIN and would never ask for it. They do have the ability to request that a new PIN mailer be snail-mailed to the address on file (no rush, no alternate address requests). However, they request it through a secured computer system and the request is processed by the automated system. Fraud reps will never ever ever see or have access to your PIN.

    Our Inbound Fraud reps are required (no exceptions) to verify three full pieces of account information prior to assisting any caller. If a cardholder does not feel comfortable with providing their personal information, reps are advised to simply advise the caller to call the number on the back of their card for assistance instead.

    In regards to our reps that make outbound calls in the case of finding suspicious activity on a card; they do not ask for any personal information. Ever. Because we are the ones calling them. Why would we verify? That’s sketchy! If the cardholder again doesn’t feel comfortable continuing with the call, we advise they call the phone number on the back of their card.

    My recommendation: Sign up for alerts through your bank directly. Some allow you to do this simply by logging into your mobile app. But keep track of which alerts you sign up for and ignore ones you don’t remember signing up for. Also, best advise, don’t provide any info over the phone unless you called them at the number on the back of your card or off your statement. Hang up. Call directly.

  9. Pete K

    I simply never answer questions from strangers who call me. I say bluntly “I never answer questions from strangers on the phone”. Not even to verify my name. “Is this Mr X?” Not even the tiniest of questions like “How are you today?” I just say “I never answer questions from strangers on the phone”. (With the obvious exception of return calls from interactions I initiate.) If one persists, I hang up.
    Oddly, this practice has had no bad consequences at all. And it can provide some innocent merriment if the fancy strikes you.

  10. Maria Coronado

    As a single female over 60, I am bombarded by calls sometimes 15-20 a day. One by one I have blocked each number, regardless of who they are. The newest thing which has been worrying me was a call I received from a local number asking if I was “My first name” and I confirmed it, not thinking. They quickly hung up and my calls to them went unanswered. I did leave a message saying that “I have never agreed to any product or to receive any service from this number – take me off your call list”. I did not leave my name. Hopefully if it is a call service the recorded message is part of a quality control? Yeah right.

    1. Aaron

      I was traveling and all of the sudden I started receiving several Apple support calls (scams) everyday. My cell phone service provider had a free app (plus a more extensive one for a fee) that stopped all the calls instantaneously. It was weird. As soon as I installed the APP the calls stopped. So I would check with your service provider to see if they have an app or pay for a 3rd party app to stop the calls.

      I don’t answer calls generally, unless I recognize the call from a person I know (not an organization). I allow the calls to go to VM and then look at the transcript.

  11. Tory

    This has no saving grace merit in helping you save yourself from being taken- but I like to have a little fun!!! I figure if they are going to try to take up my time, I am going to take up theirs.

    When I receive a call EVERY SINGLE TIME I play along. I feign surprise. I try to sound very concerned and I just keep talking over them. Then I say PLEASE HOLD ON- MY HUSBAND IS NOT HOME TO TAKE THIS CALL- SO COULD THEY PLEASE HOLD ON WHILE I GO PUT IN MY HEARING AIDS??

    Of course I don’t wear them but you can’t imagine how many scammers have hung on. Finally, when I get back maybe 3-4 minutes later, I ask them to repeat their message and then I say, “OH! We don’t have that credit card!!!” And hang up.

    Somtimes if they call my cell I say, “Could you hold one for a second? I am just getting out of my car in my garage. Please just hold on for a second until I put my packages down.” And then THEY are scammed… because im NOT coming back.

  12. Jim Albert

    I ALWAYS look up the appropriate number and contact them back. If it’s about a credit card/debit card… the number is on the back, ask for the fraud department. Otherwise I find the number myself. I NEVER give info on a call, email, text, etc. Ithat I didn’t initiate.

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