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5 signs it’s a scam call before you even pick up, according to an expert

(NEXSTAR) – One of the easiest things you can do to avoid being duped or defrauded by a phone scam: don’t even pick up the phone. But how can you tell when an incoming call is a scam or legit?

Carriers have rolled out some new tools to help warn people against scammers – you may see a warning like “scam likely” on your phone screen when it rings – but they aren’t perfect. There are a few other things you can look for to tip you off that an incoming call probably isn’t worth your time.

The first major red flag is if the call is coming from an area code that hasn’t been allocated, explained Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a phone screening and blocking service.

“Those area codes are 100% guaranteed to be a scammer. Like area code 300. There’s not really a 300, so any calls coming it there are going to be a scam,” Quilici said.

In fact, any time the second and third digits of an area code are the same, it’s designated an “easily recognizable code,” or ERC, by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator. Those are set aside for special use (like 411, for example) or they are left unallocated to any specific region (like 200, 300 and 400).

Another sign a call may be trouble is if it’s from the 202 area code, which is for Washington, D.C. It’s not because there are more scammers in D.C. – it’s because scammers like to spoof the 202 area code to make it seem like they’re calling from government agencies, like the IRS or Health and Human Services for things like Medicare.

“The other place though, is a substantial portion of the 800 number calls are a scam,” Quilici said. “It’s for a couple reasons. One is there’s a lot of emptiness in the 800 space, like a lot of numbers that aren’t assigned in it, and it’s hard to know to block an 877 number. … The second is scammers are spoofing a lot of 800 numbers still.”

Another common tactic scammers like to use is “neighbor spoofing,” where they imitate not just your area code, but also the first three numbers of your phone number. That makes it look like the call is coming from somewhere local to try and trick you into answering.

One other scammer tactic you may see: three rings and then nothing. Some robocalling softwares used by bad actors ring three times and then hang up to avoid going to voicemail and leaving an audio trace, Quilici explained.

When in doubt, let the call go to voicemail, Quilici said. You can call back if the unknown number ended up being a legitimate phone call. If it’s someone claiming to be from your bank or credit card company, make sure to call the number on the back of your card – not necessarily the number you received the call from.

To be extra safe, always dial the number on your utility bill, bank statement, health insurance card – or whatever the official source may be – instead of relying on the callback number left from an unidentified caller.

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