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A relatively new criminal tactic uses a lesser-known free service called Google Voice to create a virtual phone number associated with your phone, which the scammer can use to hide their identity when scamming others—or even use to impersonate you for purposes of identity fraud. The key to all this? Convincing you to prove you're not a scammer.
Here's how it works and how to avoid it.
What Is the Google Voice Scam?
Google Voice, one of Google's many free online services, lets you set up a virtual phone number you can use to send text messages, exchange voice and video calls and record voicemails. It also lets you link that virtual number to any phone so that when someone calls or messages the Google Voice number, it pings the linked phone.
Enabling a Google Voice account requires sending a confirmation code to an active U.S. phone number. Criminals operating overseas (and possibly some stateside who want extra anonymity) use the Google phone scam in an attempt to trick you into letting them set up a Voice account using your phone.
They start by obtaining your phone number, often from sales listings posted online or on a social media platform such as Facebook. The scammer calls you, ostensibly to set up a transaction, but before they make final arrangements, they say they're concerned about a scam they read about in which sellers rip off potential buyers. To ensure you're not a scammer, they say they'll text you a confirmation code for you to read back to them. You receive a text from Google containing a verification code and if you read it back to the scammer, they now have an active Google Voice account that Google believes is connected to your phone.
How Criminals Can Abuse Your Google Voice Number
Access to your Google Voice phone number could help crooks hide their identities in a variety of ways:
- At the most basic level, they can place calls using the number in a way that makes tracing the calls back to them very difficult, since anyone with the authority or know-how to track down the number's source will be pointed to you.
- Once the account is set up through your phone, they can re-associate your Google Voice number with their own phone and use it to place scam calls that appear to come from the Google Voice number. They can also embed your Voice number in phishing, vishing or smishing messages, return scam calls using that number, and set up bogus voicemail messages to answer the calls.
- They can use the Google Voice voicemail function to record messages posing as anyone—from a government agency to you—in order to collect information or mislead creditors or financial institutions where they want to establish bogus accounts.
- By using the Voice account in conjunction with "spoofing" software, they can cause calls placed from the Google Voice number to display your real phone number (which they needed to run the scam in the first place, remember?). They can then place calls or text messages to friends or family members identified via social media accounts seeking money for "emergencies" or other bogus scenarios.
How to Identify the Google Voice Scam
If you receive a text containing a verification code from Google, your bank or credit union, or any other company or agency, it will be clearly identified as a verification code, and that should always be a tip for you to keep the number to yourself.
Verification codes are security measures meant to keep your personal data secure. They are generated for your use only, for use in automated login or confirmation processes. Human customer service reps can verify your identity through other means and do not need to send you verification codes.
While we're on that subject, customer service reps who call you should know whom they're speaking with. They might ask for a partial Social Security number before disclosing private information such as medical test results, but you should be very suspicious if they insist you give a full Social Security number or recite a complete account number or credit card number. A legitimate caller from a government agency or financial institution knows those numbers, and would advise you to be careful about disclosing them or even reciting them out loud in public.
If someone calls you claiming to represent an institution you trust and then starts asking for information they should already have, tell them you'll call them back and do so using a number you look up online or get from a statement or other correspondence.
What Do You Do if You're a Victim of the Google Voice Scam?
If you believe your Google Voice number has been hijacked, you can reclaim your phone number by associating it with a new Google Voice number, which will disable the number the scammer set up using your code. If you don't have a free Google Gmail account, you'll have to set one up to complete this process, but you can delete the Google Voice and Gmail accounts afterward if you wish.
The Identity Theft Resource Center has detailed video instructions on reclaiming a number for Google Voice.
If you're concerned a Google Voice scammer (or anyone else) has been impersonating you for purposes of identity fraud, the following steps can help protect your finances and credit:
- Change the passwords on your financial and credit card accounts and smartphone apps. Be sure to use different passwords for each, and to avoid writing those passwords down anywhere a thief could easily obtain or copy them. For best results, consider using a password manager that generates and stores random passwords so that all you need to remember is one master password.
- Keep a close eye on your credit reports and account statements and report any unfamiliar activity promptly. Consider using Experian's free credit monitoring service to help automate this process.
The Bottom Line
The Google Voice scam succeeds by putting you on the defensive about proving you're not a thief. Instead of defending your own honorable ways, keep in mind that crooks and con artists often claim the moral high ground while trying to undermine you. Keep verification codes, account numbers, passwords and other personal information to yourself, and hang up on anyone who insists you disclose them.