The Nuclear Option: (Almost) Never Answering the Phone

There are a few scams that happen in-person (the fake utility worker being one of the most common), but the majority rely on some sort of communications technology.

This gives the people running the schemes the advantages of a physical buffer (less likely to be identified, or slugged upside the skull by an enraged victim), global reach (not limited to immediate local surroundings) and scalability (the ability to scam hundreds of people simultaneously, instead of one at a time).

According to FTC statistics, the telephone was the contact method for 69% of scams reported to the agency in 2018. By comparison, in 2008 phone calls only accounted for 7% of that total (email was the king back then, at 52%). If it seems like you’re getting more and more fraudulent phone calls over the past decade, it’s because you are.

Of course, there are various techniques for spotting a scam phone call in the moment, and one tried-and-true method of responding (hanging up without saying anything), but while I’m not a big fan of scorched-earth responses to daily irritations, there is one option that isn’t brought up often enough: simply (almost) never answering the phone. Basically, if the phone rings, you let it go to voicemail.

It can be hard to get used to. You don’t have to be all that old to remember a time when a ringing telephone was kind of an event. People would race each other to the kitchen to answer it. “The phone is ringing! It could be anybody!” And that’s exactly why you should consider letting everything go to voicemail now—it could be anybody.

The next step is to not automatically go through your missed calls and call back every number. If a legitimate caller has something important to tell you, they will leave a message. Sometimes a scam that sounds convincing if you pick up the call can sound completely unbelievable when you hear it as a voicemail. Like the prerecorded robocall that started playing as soon as your voicemail picked up, so the pitch starts mid-word about 20 seconds in. It destroys the credibility. It also gives you time to think about how to respond (which is to NOT respond, at all).

You probably don’t even have to ignore every call. While you can’t trust caller ID, the chances that a scammer is going use the name and number of a friend or family member is low. Besides, you’ll know right away if it really is who you think. You’re not going to mistake a friend for a prerecorded “press 1 to lower your rate” scheme. If you’re expecting a call from a business, it is reasonably safe to answer. Again, you’re not going to think, “Well, my dentist usually only calls to remind me that I’ve got an appointment, but today they’re telling me I owe unpaid taxes. Better go buy some iTunes gift cards.”

The real issue with caller ID is when it says things like “Microsoft” or “Social Security” or “Internal Revenue Service,” or when it shows some random local phone number. Unexpected calls that are not in response to something you yourself initiated? Ignore.