When someone claiming to be a “deputy marshal” calls to tell you that you missed jury duty and will have to pay a hefty fine immediately or face arrest, how do you know whether it’s a legitimate call or a scam? If you know what to look for, telling the difference isn't that difficult.

Scammers try to terrify you with startling news and threats. And legitimate companies and government agencies will never call you. Official communications are delivered by U.S. mail or, in certain circumstances, by certified mail.

Four Common Phone Scams

Yet precisely because people don’t know that, these four scams continue to find vulnerable targets:

  • The IRS scam. As tax season begins, the IRS phone scam ramps up. Scammers threaten legal action, police arrest, and deportation—unless you pay a heavy fine. They also ask you to “verify” your personal information, such as your birth date and Social Security number, which lays out the welcome mat for ID theft. This scam tops the list of the IRS’s official “Dirty Dozen” tax scam warnings for 2015 and was recently ranked #3 on the FTC’s list of the top 10 consumer complaints.
  • The jury duty scam. A caller claiming to be from the U.S. Marshals Service or a “deputy marshal” with the sheriff’s office warns of your imminent arrest because you didn’t report for jury duty. As with the IRS scam, you’re offered an out with the jury duty phone scam: Prove that you’re not the scofflaw by giving your Social Security number and/or give the scammer your credit card number—or buy a prepaid card and share the account number. 
  • The Microsoft scam. Also known as the “tech support scam,” someone claiming to be from Microsoft, Windows, or “computer tech support” calls to warn you that your computer is experiencing serious errors or has a virus. To prove it, the caller might ask you to check your Windows event log viewer, which is likely to contain thousands of records about various errors, most or all of which are actually nothing to worry about. If you bite, the caller then asks you to log onto a Web service that lets him or her take control of your computer. The goal of this phone scam is to install malware that can steal your personal information or trick you into enrolling in phony computer maintenance or warranty programs.
  • The Government grants scam. The bait is that you’re being offered free money from the government, just because you’ve been a good citizen. Or you’ve qualified to receive a “free grant” to pay for education costs, home repairs, home business expenses, or unpaid bills. The catch with this phone scam is that you must pay a “processing fee” of $150 to $700 to receive the grant. Or scammers ask for your checking account information so they can “deposit your grant directly into your account”—and then clean out your account. By the way, the caller might he’s from the “Federal Grants Administration.” There is no such government agency. 

How to Respond to a Phone Scam

What should you do if you get such a call?

  • Hang up the phone immediately. Don’t engage with the caller, even if you know it’s a phone scam and you think it would be fun to irritate the caller. Having a conversation only proves that your number is attached to a live person. You’ll be bombarded with more calls in the hope that you’ll fall prey to one of the scams.
  • File a complaint with the FTC. If you think you might have been a victim of a phone scam or suspect that you were targeted, file a complaint with the FTC online, or call 877-382-4357 (TTY: 866-653-4261). The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.