With friends communicating mostly through text messaging, getting an actual phone call is getting more and more rare these days. All those other times your phone beams alive with a number, if you're anything like me, you immediately pick up thinking it's probably important — after all, why else would someone be calling you. However, also if you're anything like me, it's rarely something important, and usually spam. If this is happening to you, you're not imagining it: According to NPR, multiple times a day, mobile phone users, including myself, have been receiving calls from phone numbers that mimic their own (think: your area code and the first three digits of your number). So, why are numbers similar to yours calling you? It's something I repeatedly ask myself throughout the day. And you might find yourself hung up on the question as well.
Getting calls from phone numbers that look like yours but aren't loaded into your contacts might make you feel the urge to answer. Maybe your mom changed her number? Maybe your friend who dropped their phone in the pool was forced to get a new number? Maybe someone in your town is calling with unexpected news? Seeing that familiar area code will tempt you more than "UNKNOWN" scripted across your screen or an out of town number — those, you're more likely to send to voicemail.
However, the calls are actually spam, and the mimicking of your number was more than intentional.
That ~something~ on the other end of the phone is privy to your screening activity. Imitating your phone number is a sure-er way to get you to say, "hello?". And most of the time, it's just a robot. Saying you won something. But, probably, you aren't so lucky.
First off, these pesky calls aren't initially harmful — if anything, they're a nuisance, like mosquitos buzzing around your ears while you're trying to nap on a hammock in the middle of summer. They're all buzz and no substance. However, they can become harmful if you're not careful, which leads us to the question of why, exactly, everyone is getting them.
Simply (and sadly), scammers and robocalls target many numbers in an effort to scam money from people: The New York Times reported just this week that this tactic is referred to as "neighborhood spoofing," which is why the numbers look so similar to your own. It's more likely that you'll trust the recognized number and answer.
The calls happen a lot. Everyday. The New York Times also reported that the volume of these calls have reached, "an estimated 3.4 billion in April, according to YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service. That’s an increase of almost 900 million a month compared with a year ago." Even if you're onto these robot callers and don't fall for their mask, rejecting their calls immediately, there are pitfalls to your ringing phone.
Beyond creating an annoying intrusion, some scammers get what they want if they reach unsuspecting individuals: Your money. By calling some who may not realize it's a scam and lying about there being some need for you to hand over your bank account details or credit card digits, people are being duped out of their cash.
Unfortunately, when the number comes from a trusted and familiar area code, it's easier for the robocaller to get what they want. A number of scams target specific demographics: "Grandparent scams" pinpoint senior citizens, asking for money and sometimes succeed at robbing grandparents bank accounts by posing as a family member. In one particular case, according to New York State's Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a 82 year old grandmother lost $32,000 from a scam.
The losses of both your time and finances can be critical. While a call from a number similar to your own might be tempting to pick up, it's probably not worth answering. Send that baby to voicemail and screen all unknown calls before dealing with any robotic voices.