Regulations • Last Updated 4/11/2024

What is spoofing, and why does it matter?

Spoofing is a tool scammers use to get information or bypass call blockers and pose as bank, business, or government agency

Kelsie Anderson

By Kelsie Anderson

Call Spoofing banner graphic

When caller ID was first introduced in the late 1980s, it was a complete communications gamechanger. It was the first time the average phone owner could screen calls and weed out the bothersome spam that started flooding the lines.

Fast forward to today, and spammers and scammers alike have found a way to use caller ID display to their advantage. It’s called number spoofing, and it’s more than just annoying: It can be downright harmful.

In this blog post, we’ll explain what number spoofing is and how you can better protect yourself from deceptive numbers appearing on your phone screen.

What is number spoofing?

Number spoofing involves falsifying caller identification information, allowing attackers to appear as if they’re calling from a different number—often one that the recipient might recognize and trust.

Caller ID spoofing is the backbone of number spoofing, where attackers disguise their actual phone number by altering the caller ID display on the recipient's device. This manipulation is the first step in various fraudulent schemes, including vishing (voice phishing), where the primary aim is to extract personal or financial information under false pretenses.

The advent of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology has inadvertently facilitated the proliferation of number spoofing. VoIP's flexibility in allowing users to choose their displayed number has become a double-edged sword, serving both legitimate users and those with malicious intent. And that intent is what comes under scrutiny when the law gets involved.

Spoofing a phone number is only illegal if the act is malicious in intent. For example, a scammer falsifies a number to scam or defraud the person on the other end of the phone. If caught, the guilty party can face a penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation.

However, according to the Truth in Caller ID Act, there are instances when number spoofing is perfectly legal. For example, a medical professional may use their cell phone to call a patient but have their office number appear on the screen. Since there’s no intent to defraud or cause harm, this instance of number spoofing is legal.

How scammers use spoofing

For scammers, spoofing is a tool for getting information or bypassing call blockers. Typically, scammers use spoofing to pose as a bank, business, or government agency to trick people into giving up personal or financial information.

Usually, scammers accomplish this deception by mimicking invalid, inactive, or unassigned phone numbers. The process is relatively simple, relying on the same technology that allows people to use standard phone numbers over services like Skype or Google Voice.

Scammers frequently conduct these phone scams using robocalls—automated phone calls that deliver pre-recorded messages.

Although it’s uncommon, some telemarketers also use spoofing to call people who’ve blocked their actual phone number to avoid more calls. This act is also illegal. For telemarketing, businesses must use the phone number associated with their company. Consumers must be able to call that number to request that telemarketers stop calling.

Examples of spoofing scams

Spoofing scams fall under the fraud category of crimes. And while number spoofing isn’t the only way to defraud someone, it’s a profitable industry. In 2023, consumers lost over $10 billion to fraud. Imposter scams like spoofing made up $2.7 billion of those losses, and phone call scams had the highest per-person losses at $1,480 per scam.

These are some of the most common ways scammers disguise their identities with false numbers:

Government impersonation scams

Scammers spoof the phone numbers of government agencies like the IRS, SSA (Social Security Administration), or local law enforcement to intimidate victims with false claims of legal action, unpaid taxes, or other official matters. Victims are often instructed to make immediate payments or provide sensitive personal information to resolve the alleged issues.

Bank fraud scams

In these scams, fraudsters spoof the phone numbers of banks or financial institutions. They alert victims to supposed unauthorized transactions, account locks, or security breaches. They then urge the account owner to confirm their account details, PINs, or online banking credentials, thereby gaining access to victims' accounts.

Tech support scams

Scammers spoof numbers to appear as though they’re calling from well-known technology companies, claiming to have detected security issues or viruses on the victim's computer. They persuade victims to grant remote access to their devices or to pay for unnecessary software or services to fix the non-existent problems.

Utility company scams

Scammers spoof the numbers of local utility providers, threatening to cut off services like electricity, water, or gas due to unpaid bills unless immediate payment is made—often through untraceable methods like gift cards or wire transfers.

Charity scams

Especially prevalent during times of crisis or following natural disasters, scammers spoof numbers to mimic legitimate charitable organizations, appealing to victims' emotions and goodwill to solicit donations that never reach the intended cause.

These examples highlight the versatility of number spoofing in facilitating various scams, emphasizing the importance of vigilance when receiving unsolicited calls, especially those requesting personal information or payments.

The consequences of falling prey to number spoofing

The implications of number spoofing extend beyond inconvenience. They pose serious financial and security risks to individuals and organizations. Recognizing these dangers is essential for developing an effective defense strategy.

Identity theft and financial fraud

One of the most significant results of number spoofing is the risk of identity theft and financial fraud. By gaining the trust of unsuspecting victims, attackers can coax out sensitive information, leading to unauthorized access to accounts and financial loss.

Erosion of communication trust

The widespread occurrence of number spoofing can significantly erode trust in telecommunication services. This distrust makes it increasingly difficult for genuine communications to be taken seriously, impeding important information exchange.

Strategies for combatting number spoofing

In the fight against number spoofing, a multifaceted approach combining technological solutions and informed vigilance is paramount. The following measures can significantly enhance protection against these deceptive calls.

Leveraging call-blocking and identification apps

Many call-blocking and caller ID apps are designed to filter out suspicious calls and provide users with information about the calling party. These safeguards are a first line of defense against number spoofing.

Regulatory and network provider measures

Regulatory bodies and network providers play a crucial role in combating number spoofing by implementing protocols such as STIR/SHAKEN, which aim to authenticate caller ID information. These measures make it more challenging for spoofers to execute their schemes successfully.

Educating the public on safe communication practices

Public education initiatives focused on safe communication practices are instrumental in equipping individuals with the knowledge to recognize and respond appropriately to spoofed calls. When call recipients know what to look for, they can mitigate the risk of falling victim to scammer tactics.

But even the best defenses can fall through sometimes.

What to do if you experience number spoofing

It’s important to stay vigilant when it comes to your personal information. If you’re receiving a call from a number you don’t recognize or something seems fishy about the caller ID displayed on your phone, it may be in your best interest to avoid answering the call altogether.

If, for any reason, you have to or choose to answer, don’t provide any personal information. Avoid divulging things like your name, social security number, credit card number, or anything else that scammers can use to defraud or harm you.

If you’re expecting a call but still aren’t sure about the caller’s identity, immediately hang up and call the official number listed on the business’s website or statement. They’ll be able to let you know if the call you just received is legitimate or not.

And while there’s no guaranteed method for tracing a spoofed call, you can still submit a report to the FCC to provide valuable information about potential scams. You can submit this report if you think your own number is being spoofed or if you feel you’ve received a call from a fraudulent number.

Stay vigilant against number spoofing scams

While number spoofing poses a significant threat to digital communication security, understanding its mechanics, recognizing its risks, and implementing effective countermeasures can substantially reduce its impact. Staying informed and adopting a proactive stance are key to navigating the challenges posed by number spoofing.

By using tools like Telnyx Number Lookup, your organization can add a layer of security to its communications systems. With Number Lookup, you can access valid caller information to ensure every call comes from a legitimate source. This information goes both ways, allowing you to look up numbers you call or message to make sure your communications are going to a real person.

With a combination of education around scam calls and tools to help you identify them, you can protect yourself and your business from number spoofing fraud.

Contact our team to learn how the Telnyx platform can safeguard your business and your customers from fraud.

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