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Who’s Really on the Line? Washington Consumers at Risk of Falling Victim to Robocall Scams

photo of a man with white hair and beard, probably in his 50s or 60s, listening on the phone, with the palm of his hand on his forehead

New state survey shows consumers are unable to spot the latest fraud tactics as scammers prove ‘fear sells’

The barrage of automated telephone solicitations or “robocalls” we get on our home and mobile phones seems to be never-ending. In fact, robocalls coming into Washington state have more than doubled in recent years to 560 million calls annually. To make matters worse, experts estimate that up to half of these calls may be attempts to defraud consumers.

In the face of this massive increase in unwanted scam calls, a new AARP survey shows many Washington state adults are unaware of the latest scammer tactics and are putting themselves squarely in the sights of con artists. According to “Who’s Really on the Line,” AARP’s new survey of residents age 18 and older, Washington adults are relying on outdated advice when it comes to screening out unwanted calls. While the majority of respondents are using caller ID to avoid numbers they don’t recognize or calls marked “Unknown,” “Private,” or “Restricted,” advances in technology have put them one step behind the cons.

“While those traditional red flags may have been enough to protect consumers in the past, con artists today have gained the upper hand by using ‘spoofing’ tools that mask their true identities,” says AARP State Director Doug Shadel. “By using programs that are readily and cheaply available online, scammers can manipulate your caller ID so that calls appear to come from any number or source they choose—and consumers are falling for it.”

According to AARP’s survey, nearly two-thirds of Washington adults (60 percent) say they are more likely to answer the phone if their caller ID shows a local number. Nearly half of respondents (48 percent) will likely answer if shown an area code where friends and/or family live, and four in ten (41 percent) say they are more likely to pick up if the prefix on caller ID matches their own.

AARP’s survey was released in late May at a “Spoof Proof Your Life” event at the Museum of Flight. The event was the first in a statewide series launched by AARP, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, Microsoft, the Federal Trade Commission, and BECU. Attendees learned how to spot and stop some of the latest scammer tactics.

“Impostor scams are among the top complaints received by my office each year, because scammers continue to find new ways to trick consumers,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “Scammers use tactics like robo-dialer technology and ‘neighbor spoofing’ to convince you to pick up the phone. The number of complaints we receive about robo-dialer calls has increased dramatically in the last year, but there are ways that consumers can protect themselves,” said Ferguson. “Take advantage of the resources offered by AARP, my office, and others to spot and stop scammers before they get their hands on your hard-earned money,” he said.

“Fear sells.”

According to AARP’s survey, avoiding new spoofing techniques is only half the battle. Once consumers are convinced to pick up the phone, many of them are playing directly into the hands of the scammers. When presented with some common robo-dial or online scam pitches, more than half (57 percent) of Washington adults said they were likely to follow up or ask for more information. “The only surefire way to avoid becoming a victim is to never engage with a scammer in the first place,” said Shadel. “Con artists have become increasingly sophisticated and devious, and once they get you talking, it’s far too easy to fall prey to their ploys.”

AARP’s survey may also help explain why a growing number of scam pitches are designed to threaten or scare victims into handing over their money. According to the findings, Washington adults are significantly more likely to respond to negative or fear-based pitches like “You owe unpaid taxes” or “You are facing jail time for missing jury duty,” than those promising rewards like “You’ve won the lottery” or “You qualify for a free vacation.” Half of survey respondents (50 percent) said they would respond to a fear-based pitch, compared to only 44 percent who said they would respond to a promise of wealth.

“We know from previous social science research that human beings respond more to stimuli that helps them avoid losing things than stimuli that offers them a positive gain,” said Shadel. “Fear sells, and it’s clear that con artists understand the power of scare tactics when it comes to making a buck.”

Campaign partners urged consumers to take four important steps to help protect themselves from fake and misleading robocalls or online pitches. Survey findings show very few Washingtonian adults are currently taking these important precautions.

  • Don’t rely on caller ID alone to identify who is calling. “Whether it’s online or on the phone, advances in technology have made it very easy for scammers to impersonate trusted sources,” said Sean Murphy, BECU SVP Chief Information Security Officer. “Be suspicious of requests for personal information or pressure to take action quickly. Also be wary of requests for abnormal payment methods, such as through a gift card or wire transfer.”
  • Use call blocking services. Consider getting a call blocking service like “Nomorobo” or “You Mail,” or contact your phone company and inquire if they offer a call blocking feature. AARP’s survey showed that most Washington adults (81 percent) do not use a robocall blocking service.
  • Independently verify the identity of those calling. According to AARP’s survey, half of Washington adults (51 percent) seldom or never look up a number online to determine if it’s a scam. “The best thing you can do to prevent fraud is to be vigilant, avoid unsolicited offers, and safeguard your personal information,” said Courtney Gregoire, Assistant General Counsel, Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit. “Be wary of unsolicited phone calls or pop-up messages on your electronic devices. Never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team of whom you are already a customer. If you think you may have been the victim of a scam, file a report with law enforcement authorities, including your local consumer protection authority. You could help stop fraudsters in their tracks,” said Gregoire.
  • Report fraud to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. AARP’s survey showed that most Washington adults (79 percent) have not reported telemarketing robocalls, calls with fake or misleading display numbers (84 percent) or attempted telephone scams (81 percent) to authorities. “It’s important to always report scam attempts, even if you don’t fall victim,” said Chuck Harwood, Federal Trade Commission Regional Director. “Your story makes a difference. Every report is a piece of the puzzle that helps authorities see a fuller picture of what scammers are doing, which can also help in law enforcement actions. Scammers don’t rip off just one person, and your story could be the one that helps protect others,” he said. Consumers should report scams to the FTC at gov/complaint, and to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office at atg.wa.gov/file-complaint.

For more information, visit aarp.org/wa. Also, check out more consumer protection tips and sign up for fraud alerts from the AARP Fraud Watch Network at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.


Contributor Jason Erskine is the Communications Director at AARP Washington. Learn more about AARP Washington at aarp.org/wa.

This article originally appeared in AgeWise King County (July 2019).