Number spoofing scams and how to avoid them

Scammers use phone number spoofing to convince you they are genuine by stealing the details of legitimate businesses and organisations.

Woman sitting in an office using a smartphone
(Image credit: Getty images)

Con artists employ all sorts of tactics in order to scam us out of our money, with one of the more effective being number spoofing.

With the cost of living crisis in full effect, it’s never been more important to keep a tight grip on your finances. That doesn’t just mean cutting your spending on household bills to manageable levels, but also ensuring that you don’t end up handing money over to scammers.

So what is number spoofing? And how can you protect yourself from scammers looking to exploit it?

Number spoofing scams

What is number spoofing?

When you receive a phone call, the number ‒ or even the name ‒ of the person calling you will generally appear on your handset. It means that even before you pick up, you have a good idea of who is on the other end of the line.

Or do you? Spoofing is a scam where the caller is able to change what appears on your phone handset, making it seem as if they are calling from a different number. The idea is that this can help them convince you that they are from a reputable organisation, whether that be a bank, a service provider, or even the taxman.

Spoofing isn’t just used by scammers making phone calls, though. Number spoofing can also be used when sending text message scams so that it appears to come from a genuine organisation.

How do number spoofing scams work?

Spoofing scams can take a number of different forms, but at their heart, they rely on you believing that the caller is from a legitimate business or organisation.

It’s that belief which can make you more susceptible to sharing something with the scammer that you should not. For example, the scammer might use the phone number from the bank you use and claim that there has been unusual activity on your account, talking you into moving money from your account into one controlled by the scammer.

Alternatively, they could claim to be from the taxman and suggest that you need to pay an unpaid tax bill immediately, where again you would move money into their account.

Some spoofing scams are different in that they don’t involve getting you to make a payment ‒ instead, the scammer uses the credibility that comes from appearing to be from somewhere legitimate to talk you into sharing your personal information, which they can then use to steal your identity and open financial products in your name.

The scammers are able to pull off the spoof and change the number appearing on your handset, by making use of a range of options. This could be through specialist software, or through voice over IP (VOIP) technology, for example.

How to spot number spoofing scams

Most of us will have been on the receiving end of a scam call at some point, where the person on the other line tries to convince you to hand over your bank or personal details.

Spoofing scams work in exactly the same way ‒ the only difference is that the caller might seem a little more credible as they appear to be calling from the actual organisation or business.

As a result, spoofing scams have the same telltale signs that you find with other forms of phone call scams.

These include asking for personal details or details about your account, such as your password. Remember, your bank ‒ or any reputable firm for that matter ‒ will never call you out of the blue and ask you to share those details.

Spoofing scammers may also put you under pressure to act quickly, suggesting that if you don’t the situation will be made worse. This could be claiming that your bank account is about to be closed due to suspicious activity, or claiming that the authorities will pursue you if you do not pay a supposed tax bill immediately.

They may also be elusive if you ask them to prove that they really are from the business or organisation they claim to be representing, or if you ask to call them back. If the issue is genuine, the caller should have no issue with you hanging up and then calling them back through the official contact channels.

How banks are failing to stop number spoofing

Spoofing scams are nothing new, and measures have been introduced to try to make it harder for scammers to pull them off. For example, the communications regulator Ofcom has a ‘do not originate’ (DNO) list, which allows telecoms providers and businesses to work together to block calls from numbers that are most likely to be spoofed.

The list is essentially a collection of numbers that these organisations and firms use to receive calls, but never to make them to customers.

However, an investigation by Which? has found that too many banks are not making use of the DNO list.

Which? made calls to a test phone, spoofing the prominent numbers of 14 banks ‒ it chose the numbers printed on the back of debit cards or listed as fraud helplines on the bank’s website.

It was able to spoof at least one number from HSBC, Lloyds, Santander, TSB, Nationwide and Virgin Money in its investigation, suggesting that scammers who adopted a similar tactic might be able to con victims into handing over their details.

Cracking down on number spoofing scams

The DNO list is not the only measure introduced by Ofcom in order to tackle spoofing scams. 

Earlier this year it proposed new rules and guidance which should make it tougher for these scams to be carried out.

For example, all networks involved in the transmission of a call are expected to block numbers that are ‘clearly spoofed’, for example if they come from abroad but do not have a valid caller ID or if they are using a number which does not meet the UK’s 10 or 11 digit format.

It has also set out its expectations for phone companies to do more to prevent valid numbers being accessed by scammers.

How to report number spoofing scams

If you believe you have been caught out by a spoofing scam, it’s really important that you contact your bank as quickly as possible.

That way you can ensure that action is taken as quickly as possible on cancelling any payments in progress to the scammers.

It’s also worthwhile reporting the matter to the authorities. For example, Action Fraud is the reporting centre for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while if you’re in Scotland you should report the crime directly to the police.

You can also pass the details to Trading Standards, via Citizens Advice.

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John Fitzsimons
Contributing editor

John Fitzsimons has been writing about finance since 2007, and is a former editor of Mortgage Solutions and loveMONEY. Since going freelance in 2016 he has written for publications including The Sunday Times, The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Mail and Forbes, and is committed to helping readers make more informed decisions about their money.