Phone scams cost Americans $8.6 billion last year – here's how to protect yourself

Approximately 17.6 million Americans were victims of a phone scam in the past 12 months and lost an average of $488.80. (WJLA)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - According to a Truecaller/Harris survey released Wednesday, approximately 17.6 million Americans were victims of a phone scam in the past 12 months and lost an average of $488.80.

The findings show that phone scams cost Americans approximately $8.6 billion annually, and breaks down to an average of $35.60 for each U.S. adult.

The survey also showed Americans had a greater chance of being targeted on a mobile phone than on a home phone or landline. Of those who lost money in a phone scam, nearly half (49 percent) reported losing money via a mobile phone scam compared to 36 percent who reported losing money on a home phone/landline. Overall, men were far more likely to lose money in phone scam, with victims being 71 percent male and 29 percent female.

“$8.6 billion lost per year through U.S. phone fraud is simply a staggering number and shows the need for greater vigilance among Americans when it comes to protecting themselves from scam artists operating over the phone,” Truecaller CEO Alan Mamedi said. “We think the actual dollar number lost may be even higher due to factors like unreported fraud and unchecked phone bills even in instances when owners received a spam call.”

The survey's findings also showed Americans aren't doing enough to protect themselves from mobile fraud.

Despite the potential to be targeted by fraudsters, many smartphone owners reported that they don’t take any precautions to protect themselves from phone scams, indicating scammers have a huge potential population of victims.

When asked how they protect themselves against phone scams, smartphone owners answered as follows:

· 64 percent never answer a call from an unknown number
· 31 percent search online for suspicious numbers before returning calls
· 20 percent do nothing
· 16 percent use a caller ID app (different from what their smartphone came with)
· 4 percent do something else

The lack of precautions from many smartphone owners leaves them susceptible to popular types of phone scams, which seem to be increasing at an alarming rate. Suspicious calls can include instances where scammers pretend to be IRS agents or debt collectors, callers who spoof your own phone number calling you, and those who initiate fraud via “one-ring scams,” where consumers are tricked into dialing numbers that automatically start billing them for every minute they remain on the phone.

Of smartphone owners who received calls from scammers or suspicious or unknown numbers in the past 12 months:

· 33 percent never checked their phone bill
· 21 rarely checked their phone bill
· 20 percent sometimes checked their phone bill
· 16 percent always checked their phone bill
· 10 percent often checked their phone bill

The study also showed that of those who had checked their phone bills, 37 percent found fraudulent charges. A percentage of fraud so high indicates that a great deal of those who hadn't checked their bills may also have been victims and simply were not aware.

“We’re seeing that a lot of smartphone owners are not taking some very essential steps to avoid becoming a phone scam victim. This amounts to huge cost in time and money if they do get scammed and need to contest charges, or worse, handle a case of identity theft,” Mamedi continued. “Scam artists are only getting smarter about how to conceal their identity and consumers will need better and easier ways to prevent scams.”

Men have a higher probability of being targeted by scammers and tend to be more cautious about falling victim to one.

According to the survey, male smartphone owners indicated a higher average of unknown or suspicious calls per year, 21.9 calls versus 17.6 calls for women. By many metrics, men took more precautions to prevent scams on smartphones than women. When asked about precautions they took to protect themselves from fraud, the survey showed the following:

· Men who received calls from unknown callers/spammers on a smartphone in the past 12 months more likely than women to always or often check their phone bill after a suspicious call (32 percent vs. 21 percent)
· Women who have received calls from unknown callers/spammers on a smartphone in the past 12 months are more likely than men to never check their phone bill after receiving one of these calls (37 percent vs. 29 percent)