In October, a man who was lost for 24 hours while hiking in Colorado ignored repeated phone calls from rescue teams because the calls came from unknown numbers. He also ignored their texts and voicemail messages.
While this might seem bizarre, the truth is we completely understand why he’d ignored any of these calls—even while lost. Most of the time, an unknown call is a robocall or other unwanted callers like telemarketers or scammers.
As for the lost hiker, he found his way back to his place of lodging a day after setting off, none the wiser that anyone had been searching for him.
Should you answer that unknown call?
In short, no.
Unknown calls are not harmless. First off, there are plenty of calls peddling scams. The most surefire way to not get scammed over the phone is to not pick up those calls.
But even if you’re highly aware of scams and won’t get duped, there is another reason to ignore unknown callers. Sometimes a robocall (those dialed automatically by a machine rather than a person) is simply for confirming if a number is in use. By picking up, you’re confirming that your number is valid. This would in theory mean more scams and spam calls coming your way.
There is also a type of scam that targets people who will return a phone call that they’ve missed and wind up making an expensive overseas call by accident. Even the Federal Communications Commission warns against this scam and advises not to answer or return any calls from numbers you don’t recognize.
That said, some research suggests that it doesn’t matter if you answer calls or not. The research, done by the Robocall Observatory at North Carolina State University, found that the weekly volume of robocalls remained constant throughout the study whether answered or not.
But when it comes to whether your privacy and personal data are at risk if you pick up a scam call, it’s highly unlikely, according to Aaron E., the head of cybersecurity at ExpressVPN. “With respect to just answering a telephone call over the main public telephone network, your location should not be divulged unless scammers literally have compromised the cell phone provider,” he says.
What to do if you get an unknown call
For starters, some smartphones are equipped with technology that can detect if a call is potentially spam, and they indicate as such when the call comes in. The simplest course is to not answer.
But there might be times when you simply do not want to miss a legitimate call from unknown numbers.
Here are a few other ways to handle unknown calls:
1. Watch out for calls with country codes
Unless you’re expecting a call from someone overseas, avoid picking up calls with country codes. These are likely scams.
2. If you do pick up, wait without speaking
The next time you receive an unknown call, just remain silent for a while. Most robocalls don’t immediately “speak” once you’ve picked up the phone. Some play music as if you’re on hold. Just hang up.
Also beware of a scam that tries to record you saying the word “yes,” by asking “Can you hear me?” The aim is to use your voice confirmation for illegal activities.
3. Use common sense
Lost on a hike? Answer those calls! As the rescue team said in regards to the aftermath of the lost hiker incident: “If you’re overdue according to your itinerary, and you start getting repeated calls from an unknown number, please answer the phone.”
Read more: 5 ways to stop robocalls and spam calls
FAQ: About unknown calls
Can my telephone provider tell me who the unknown caller is?
It’s possible. You could try requesting logs of calls made to you, and the number behind an unknown call might be revealed. However, it’s possible the service provider simply does not know the number behind the call. Sometimes, the provider charges a small fee to customers to hide their phone numbers, so it stands to reason that that information would be kept private. If you want the caller’s identity, it is very unlikely that a phone provider would be able to tell you.
How to find out an unknown caller number?
One method if you’re in the U.S. is to use *69, which traces the number of the last call you received. This service works for hidden calls, too. You could also try third-party apps to reveal a caller’s number and identity. However, before downloading these apps, read reviews and always download apps from legitimate app stores.
Can you call back an unknown number?
If you can view the number but don’t recognize it, you can call back. However, if you cannot view the number, you won’t be able to. To reveal a hidden number, you can try calling *69 in the U.S., or use a third-party app designed for this purpose.
Why does it say “unknown caller”?
“Unknown caller” is displayed when your mobile phone manufacturer cannot identify the incoming call number. This could be because the caller has subscribed to a service with their provider that allows them to hide their phone number. In the U.S., you can also hide your number by entering *67 before dialling the number you’re calling. Some phone settings also let you easily hide your number when making a call.
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