"I just received a call from my sister's contact name and actual phone number; she lives across the country from me. A man was on the other end, sounding crazed and immediately threatening my sister's well-being and life."
That is the start of a post on Reddit by a cybersecurity worker.
What a frightening moment! It has to be hard to think straight when you hear someone threaten the life of a loved one and see that the call is coming from their phone. Don't underestimate how your thinking could be clouded if that happened to you.
Still feeling the initial shock, the cybersecurity worker had the presence of mind to stall. It helped that he was having trouble logging into his Venmo account. He wanted to be ready to pay the extortion demand if the threat to his sister appeared to be real. While stalling, it occurred to him to ask for proof of life. The caller tried to fake that and eventually hung up.
You might be surprised at what little effort it takes to pull off a scam like this one.
You can obtain a person's mobile phone number, names of family members and their phone numbers from a service like Whitepages Inc. Free phone software is available to install on a throw-away cloud server account. With this software, you can "spoof" anyone's name and phone number to show up as your CallerID when placing calls.
So, with a little research and an inexpensive server account, criminals can make frighteningly real extortion calls.
Of course we don't want to ignore possibly real threats against our loved ones. But it is important to understand the kinds of scams and the deceptive tricks that criminals can use.
Let your family members and coworkers know that they cannot trust the accuracy of CallerID names and numbers on incoming calls. That knowledge can put them on alert for a variety of phone scams.