Can I Trust Caller ID?

phone displaying unknown caller

Caller ID is great for letting you know when friends or family are calling, but it's not always trustworthy when it comes to unfamiliar numbers. Criminals can (and regularly do) exploit the service to make it appear as if they are callers from government agencies, businesses and other institutions you trust. Here's how to protect yourself from the imposters.

How Caller ID Works

Caller ID lets you know where a call is coming from before you answer it so you can decide whether to take the call or let it go to voicemail. If a caller's name and number are listed in your phone's address book, caller ID typically displays their name instead of the number, and that's great for flagging important calls from family, friends and other acquaintances.

Caller ID also displays the names of businesses and government agencies by using huge "address books" available to phone companies: These databases associate the names of businesses and other institutions with many thousands of phone numbers. If a caller's number is included in that database, caller ID displays the business or agency name rather than its number.

But caller ID cannot always be trusted thanks to a widespread fraud technique known as "spoofing."

What Is Caller ID Spoofing?

Spoofing uses software to trick your caller ID into displaying an inaccurate source of a call. It is widely associated with "robocalling"—the use of automated systems to deliver recorded messages urging you to call back or request a live representative who'll read a scam script.

Robocalling and spoofing can be used legitimately: For instance, cities may use robocalls to issue warnings about snow emergencies or wildfires, and delivery and ride-hailing drivers can legally use spoofed numbers to shield their privacy. Companies you've given permission to call you with sales offers can use robocalls to do so legally.

When scammers employ caller ID spoofing and robocalling, it's in the hopes that a fraction of recipients will answer and fall for a scam.

Fraudulent spoofing can take a couple of forms: Some scammers get caller ID to display the name of a trusted organization such as a financial institution or government agency. Another approach is to display numbers as the area code and first three digits of your phone number to make the call seem as if it's generated locally, when it might really be coming from another state or country.

How to Avoid Caller ID Spoofing

Here are some guidelines for avoiding scams related to caller ID spoofing.

  • Ignore calls from unfamiliar numbers. There's no way to be certain if calls that appear to be coming from your town are actually local, or even if the name of a business or institution can be trusted.
  • Understand how legitimate agencies will contact you. Federal agencies, including the IRS, Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs will contact you by mail, not the phone, if there are issues with your accounts. A caller claiming to be from one of these agencies may urge you to take immediate action to avoid financial disaster, which is a red flag even if caller ID makes the call seem legit. If you get a call like this, hang up immediately. To be sure there are no issues with the agency the criminals claim to represent, call the agency directly using the number posted on the agency's website.
  • Do not give out numbers or account information. If caller ID identifies a call as coming from an agency or institution you trust, such as your bank or credit union, beware of requests for "ID confirmation" that ask you to reveal any account, driver's license or Social Security numbers. Those institutions already know your account details and identification numbers, and they shouldn't need to ask for them if they're calling you. If in doubt, hang up and call the institution or agency back.
  • Voicemail is your friend. If caller ID indicates a government agency is calling, let the call go to voicemail. If the caller leaves a message, don't use the callback number they supply, and instead use a number published on the agency's website to call them back.
  • Gift cards aren't used for legitimate payments. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that from January 2021 to September 2021, 40,000 American consumers were victimized by scams seeking payment in the form of retail gift cards, with a total loss of nearly $150 million. Most of these scams began with calls from criminals impersonating government agents or representatives of trusted businesses. Gift cards are not a payment method that's accepted by any legitimate agencies or organizations.
  • Report scammers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been cracking down on fraudulent caller ID spoofing since 2009, and provides a website you can use to lodge a complaint if you've been targeted by bogus or unwanted calls. The FTC also provides a site for reporting fraud. If someone has used caller ID to impersonate legitimate government or business contacts, these resources can help thwart future scams.

The Bottom Line

As convenient as it is, caller ID is unfortunately not foolproof. Ignore calls from unfamiliar numbers, and be wary of calls that identify as businesses or government agencies. Hang up as soon as you feel pressured to buy something, make a payment or give up account numbers or personal identifying information. If you believe a caller has abused caller ID in a fraud attempt, notify the FCC or FTC.

If you believe your personal information has been compromised, consider taking steps to protect yourself from identity theft. Free credit monitoring from Experian can also alert you to unauthorized use of your credit information.