When You Answer The Phone And No One Is There

Don't talk and don't even cough!
alphaspirit via Getty Images

Have you ever answered the phone to find no one on the other end and wondered: What are they trying to sell me if they aren't speaking?

According to experts, these kinds of calls are step one in a phone fraud scheme that could lead to your identity being stolen and/or your bank account drained. The silence on the other end of the phone is actually a computer gathering information about you -- yes, just from your answering "Hello." A mere cough will signal to the computer that the 10 digits it just dialed is an active line, answered by humans.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, these kinds of calls are on the rise. "[Robocalling] is the No. 1 consumer complaint that we receive," FTC attorney Patty Hsue told NPR. On average, the FTC gets about 170,000 complaints a month related to robocalls.

But how does it escalate from the silent call to fraud or identity theft? Vijay Balasubramaniyan, CEO of Pindrop Security, a company in Atlanta that detects phone fraud, estimates that 1 in every 2,200 calls is a fraud attempt. He told NPR that once the silent computer can ascertain that your number is real, that information is sold to criminal rings. Next, you'll get calls and messages asking you to call back a "1-877" number and answer prompts about various bits of personal data. If you or the police call them back from a phone other than the one they called you on, you'll get the message that the line has been deactivated -- making it hard to catch the scammers.

Once there is enough information on you, the criminal ring has humans call your bank and credit card companies and ask what your available balance or credit is. And once knowing how much they can get away with, the caller will ask to have your address updated -- taking over the account.

In his NPR interview, Balasubramaniyan suggested calling back the number on the back of your credit or debit card, not the number left on your voice mail. And if you don't recognize the number on your caller ID, don't answer the phone. The FBI says that seniors are the most targeted group for this kind of fraud.

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