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How a Silent Phone Call Could Lead to Identity Theft

If you receive a call with just silence on the other end of the line, there's a chance it could be part of a scheme to collect information about you to attempt to steal your identity.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, these so-called robocalls are on the rise, in part because Internet-powered phone systems are making it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world, while disguising their own identity by displaying fake caller ID information.

These scammers can get your phone number from a variety of methods, ranging from a data breach at a retailer like Target or Home Depot to a contest that you entered to win a free vacation.

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Vijay Balasubramaniyan, CEO of Pindrop Security, a company in Atlanta that detects phone fraud, told NPR that fraudsters often attempt making calls without intending to ever speak, just to verify that they have a correct phone number with a real person at the other end.

During a second call, the fraudster could call back and try to collect personal information. For example, the next call from the same person could involve a prerecorded message about, say, an important message about your credit card account, in which you'll be prompted to verify personal data such as your date of birth, card number, expiration date and Social Security number.

Then, the fraudster will call your financial institution pretending to be you, and will ask a general question, such as: "I was just checking on what my credit limit is," to be sure the account is legitimate and worth pursuing.

Although it's difficult for the average person to know if the initial silent call is trying to target them as a potential victim, there are some clues that larger financial institutions can pick up on to try to stop some of this fraudulent behavior in its tracks. If the caller is claiming to be from New York, for example, but the phone number is coming from another country, it could signal that the call is suspicious.

As for the average person, the FTC says the best defense is to "just hang up." The FTC receives an average of 170,000 complaints about robocalls each month.

"We don't want consumers to engage in any way with robocallers," Patty Hsue, an attorney who leads the FTC's effort against robocalls told NPR. "A lot of times when you get a robocall you have the option of pressing 1 for more information or pressing 2 to ask to be removed from the list. And in either case, pressing 1 or 2 basically lets the robocaller know that it's a live person on the other line who's willing to engage and that could lead to additional robocalls."

So, again, just hang up.

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