How “Silent Calls” Lead To Identity Theft

Category: Telephony

We’ve all had the experience of answering a phone call only to hear nothing. Typically, we just hang up and shrug. But those “silent calls” are the first step in well-organized campaigns to steal identities and bank account balances. Here is how these scams work, and what you should do to protect yourself…

The Dark Side of Robocalling

“Hello? Hello? Anybody there?” That first, silent call is just a probe to see if a phone number is in active use. Automatic dialing machines place tens of thousands of silent calls per day using free or dirt-cheap Voice-over-IP technology.

Software “listening” on the caller’s end can tell the difference between a “not in service” recording and your puzzled “Hello?” or even a human cough. Phone numbers identified as active are passed to another robocalling system for followup calls that usually come days later.

The next robocall will feature a recorded voice saying something like this: “This is an important message regarding your debit card. If you are the cardholder, press 1 and stay on the line. Otherwise, please have the cardholder call us at 1-800…”

silent robocalls and ID theft

In case you’re thinking about ignoring these demands, the recording warns, “A temporary hold may have been placed on your account. It will be removed after you have verified account activity.”

If you follow orders, you’ll be guided through the process of providing your account number, PIN, birth date, the card’s expiration date, and even your Social Security Number to a machine. There is no “live agent” to argue with; just provide the required information and don’t hang up, or “your access to funds may be delayed.”

Why Do People Fall For This Scam?

Are you getting tired of those annoying telemarketer and robocalls? There are some steps you can take to stop unwanted phone calls. See my articles Stop Unwanted Phone Calls and FCC Cracks Down on Robocalls for some tips.

Reading about it here, this process seems obviously bogus, a trick that no reasonably cautious person would fall for. But in real life, it works often enough to be worthwhile for the scammers. Many banks use robocalls to authenticate unusual activity on customers’ accounts. Paypal does it. These legitimate robocalls lend credibility to the phishing calls. So phone-phishing is big business.

Illegal automated calls are the number one source of complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission. The agency receives an average of 170,000 complaints about robocalls every month!

Once the robocalling machines have pried enough information from a victim, it is turned over to human fraudsters. Experts at social engineering call financial institutions pretending to be cardholders. A simple question like, “What is my available balance?” identifies the big fish. Then the fraudster cons a customer service rep into changing the account’s mailing address, and the theft is complete.

Banks and credit card companies are fighting back with the help of companies like Pindrop Security, an Atlanta-based firm that specializes in phone fraud detection and advanced caller-authentication systems.

Ordinary caller-ID and Automatic Number Identification (ANI) technologies are virtually worthless for authenticating callers. Fraudsters long ago figured out how to spoof caller-ID and ANI data so that they can appear to be calling from any number, including a prospective fraud victim’s. I've noticed in the past few months that most of the robocalls I've received are coming from numbers that appear to be local.

What's a Phoneprint?

Catching spoofed calls is job number one. So Pindrop has developed a Fraud Detection System (FDS) that analyzes an incoming call to generate a fraud risk score based on the caller’s location, device type, and 150 other subtle characteristics. If this Phoneprint™ profile doesn’t match up well with the caller-ID and ANI information, the call is flagged as a “potential spoof.”

Suspicious Phoneprints™ are compared to Pindrop’s large database of Phoneprints™ known to be associated with criminal enterprises. The company updates this database by luring fraudsters to its “honeypot” of over 250,000 inactive phone numbers and creating Phoneprints™ of the fraudsters’ calls. Pindrop claims that its FDS is over 90% accurate in determining the location of a caller, the type of device used, and the network type for VoIP calls (Skype, Google Voice, etc.).

Recordings of flagged calls are brought to the attention of a financial institution’s fraud alert team within minutes of their completion, before any transactions or changes to a customer’s record can be finalized. The fraud team can put a hold on suspicious activity until it can be verified with the customer.

The best thing consumers can do to avoid the “silent call” pitfall is to simply hang up, according to the FTC. Don’t press any buttons, even the one that’s supposed to remove you from the caller’s call list. That will only result in more robocalls. You might also want to try a free service called Nomorobo to filter out these annoyances.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How “Silent Calls” Lead To Identity Theft"

(See all 45 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

I checked the Nomorobo web site. It looked very promising until I got the message stating the service does not work with traditional landlines and wireless cell service. :(

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

How do you go about getting the nomorobo service? And is it available for landline and or cell phones? I get these types of calls on a nearly daily basis on my landline!

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

One simple way to avoid the problem is to use a phone answering machine and screen the calls before answering them, only answering those from people you know. A legitimate caller will always leave a message and then you can pickup the phone. You can tell your friends not to hangup after the message, and, if we are at home, we will pickup. This has worked for us for years!

Posted by:

malcolm de winter
27 Aug 2015

I am getting a large amount of these silent calls, also at least once a week and getting calls telling me that my computer has a problem. I'm unable to complain about the second one to the federal authorities as the schools appear to be coming from India. The silent calls I can do nothing about. However I haven't had any follow-ups on those but it is getting to the point of being intrusive.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

We recently received a call from ourselves. The displayed phone number was our phone number.

Posted by:

Rober Kemper
27 Aug 2015

Very interesting and pertinent information on another very dangerous scam. Thanks Bob, for sending.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

An inexpensive way to stop getting your number sent on as "identified as active" is to purchase an inexpensive gizmo, Tele Zapper. It plays the tones you hear on an out of service line each time a call is answered or picked up by an answering machine, the phone then works as normal.

We now get very few robo calls beyond a few initial test calls, and their system then records the number as inactive.

I got my battery version from a dollar store (yay) but they are still available on eBay. I am not a seller and have no interest in sales of Tele Zapper, other than to say they are great and really do work.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

Unfortunately, your cell phone and your "traditional" landline cannot be served by NOMOROBO!! The phone companies should be required to block these annoying phone calls for free. Instead, they want to charge us an extra fee. The "NO CALL" list has always been a joke. The legislature is NOT our friend. Their robocalls are among the most annoying of all.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

Bob, When I was teaching, I told my students, "The more you know, the easier it is to find what you need to know." Sounds like these phone fraudsters must have been in my class ..." Anyway, I use Nomorobo, and it works well. Thanks for another great article.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2015

We have used Nomorobo for several months now. It has reduced our robo calls by at least 90 percent. If your phone system allows it use it. Makes life so much easier.

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
27 Aug 2015

Thanks again Bob, for a very informative article. However, I wanted to let your readers know, that Nomorobo, is not available for traditional analog landline phones or wireless phones. This is according to their website.

I don't answer the phone. All my calls go to my voicemail, and I take care of them, whenever I choose. ;)

Posted by:

J. Hansen
27 Aug 2015

Bob, why don't you tell people about CPR (call prevention registry)It does not cost much and it will prevent unwanted calls. Check it with GOOGLE.

Posted by:

Laura Beraha
27 Aug 2015

If I do not recognize the phone number on the caller ID. I don't pick up and let it go to the answering machine. A legitimate caller will most likely leave a message, whereupon I'd pick up if I recognize the caller.

Posted by:

Don West
27 Aug 2015

Unfortunately, Nomorobo is not available on traditional analog landlines or wireless phones at this time.

Posted by:

Bob K.
28 Aug 2015

 Unfortunately, Nomorobo is not available on traditional analog landlines or wireless phones at this time.

So what else is there, besides land lines or wireless phones?

EDITOR'S NOTE: VOIP, which is what you get when you sign up for one of those bundles (tv/phone/internet) from the cable or phone company.

Posted by:

28 Aug 2015

Great information! I have been on the FTC sight and read some of the possible drawbacks to their blocking of calls. I may do it anyhow if I keep getting calls I once used "Opt Out" to stop. I like the Nomorobo concept to look into.
Thanks, PMW

Posted by:

28 Aug 2015

Bob - If the FTC receives 170K complaints each month, what results does that generate? How many prosecutions are there, for example?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't have that answer. My guess is that they go after the most flagrant violators first, based on the number of complaints received. Here's one example:

Posted by:

Jack T
29 Aug 2015

Bob provides a service to alert people to be careful but, in fact, this scam is not about dead calls or robocalls. The ONLY way ID theft works here is that otherwise sensible people voluntarily give personal security information to faceless people on the other end of the line. Just imagine a stranger approaching you on a street corner and saying, "could you please give me your ATM pin so we can make sure your security systen is up to date." If you would not, do the same on the phone. And if you would? Well maybe PT Barnum knew what he was talking about.

Posted by:

29 Aug 2015

Thanks for this eye-opener Bob! As a rule, we don't answer unknown numbers and I always run any such numbers by This is a great place to get feedback from others who have received (or are receiving ) calls from these numbers.

Posted by:

Jim Rennie
11 Sep 2015

I've been using nomorobo for a couple weeks and have had over a dozen calls blocked. Today, however, the robocall came with the caller id of the phone that was ringing. That's right, I was calling myself from my phone. Those b*st*rds are keeping a jump ahead of us.

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