This is a question that comes up quite often. How do I trace a cell phone number? How do I trace this landline number? How do I know who it is or where it’s coming from? All these questions usually stem from an unknown caller reaching you on your cellphone or home caller ID. You might have missed the call or purposefully chose not to pick-up, and now you wish you knew who it was, or what it was for.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to this problem. Although it is possible to trace a cell phone through satellite signals, and although you can usually trace a landline as well, it is often not an easy task, and even more often impossible. With the advent of Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) phone systems, and caller ID spoofing, it can often be impossible to trace a call to any real contact.
Privacy is also a concern, and there exists very little legitimate reverse phone lookup services. So little, that after scanning through the numerous fake websites out there, I decided to write this article. I cover important points such as ‘spoofing’, and the different scenarios in which someone may find themselves wanting to trace a caller’s phone number. This up to date information should be able to help clarify the different options, methods, and pitfalls of tracing a phone number, as well paint a clearer general picture of caller IDs, tracing numbers, and when it just can’t be done.
Why Trace a Phone Number?
The first question to ask is why? The reason can affect how or if you will be successful at tracing a call. These reasons vary but are often limited to; Harassment or abusive phone calls, a missed call that sparked your curiosity, telemarketing calls, suspicious callers, as well as verifying the legitimacy of a call made by one of your service providers. Or, it may pertain to a more serious matter, such as threatening and abusive calls.
One of the many reasons you might be unsuccessful at tracing a number, is because it is unlisted. Which brings us to your first line of defense against unwanted calls, which is to use an unlisted phone number yourself. Unfortunately, this cannot apply to all, such as businesses that rely on public numbers to take customer or client calls. However, it’s good to keep in mind that due to a number being unlisted, it may prove to be too difficult to trace online unless it was shared somewhere.
To have an unlisted number, you simply need to request it when you first activate your line. However, there is no guarantee that your new number has not been previously listed by previous owners. There is also the Do Not Call List, which is discussed at the very end of this article.
Spoofing Phone Numbers
Before I go on, I want to touch base on a very important but not well known issue that caller ID technology faces, and that is number spoofing. When speaking of telephony, the term ‘spoofing’ is generally used to describe the act of hiding a real number with a fake one on caller ID. Number spoofing can be easily achieved, and because caller ID technology has been around for a long time, with no real way to secure it, spoofing has been a real pain for some people that fell victim to either being constantly harassed, or worse, having your real number spoofed by scammers.
Spoofing is not limited to phone numbers and called ID. Emails are also very much so affected by spoofing, which is why you should never trust file downloads or emails asking you for private details without verification first, even if it seems to be coming from a legitimate source.
This also means, that even if you see a phone number on your caller ID, it may be spoofed and thus not the real caller’s number. If someone gets their number spoofed, this unfortunately results in many angry call backs regarding whatever scam they had been called about, and the person at the other end has to repeatedly explain that they are not the ones making the actual calls.
There is no real way to protect yourself from spoofed calls or having your number spoofed by others. In fact, if it happens to you, the only real immediate option you may have is to change numbers, and this can be a costly, or at least difficult proposition for established business phones. The bottom line is that caller ID can be tricked by scammers, and when it happens, the perpetrators are often untouchable due to being located somewhere overseas.
How to Trace an Unknown Caller Number
So you received a missed call, but don’t recognize the number. You call back and get no answer, and your curiosity spiked you enough to go searching online. Or you got a voicemail message advising your bank called regarding a credit card verification, and you’re unsure if this is a legitimate call. Maybe your child received a call from a new friend you never met, or a certain infidelity suspicion.
Those are all pretty common situations, but getting a quick answer can become frustrating, and even present some dangers. There are a number of ways to try and trace these calls to see if the number is legitimate, or if it should be avoided. The danger lies with the multitude of fake reverse lookup websites out there trying to phish your personal details, and usually not even give you any information in return. Others will cost you money and request that you pay with your credit card number. I highly suggest not to use any of these, as most of them are using the same publicly available databases as everyone, and there is no way to easily trace a name for a private cell phone number, or unlisted landline number.
First Method: Search for the Phone Number on Who Called Me? Websites
Instead trying to find a legitimate reverse look-up service online, a much more reliable resource is a community based Who Called type of website. The Better Business Bureau has a good resource page that lists a few call trace websites. An example would be www.whocalled.us or www.800notes.com for 1-800 numbers. These websites are fed with comments left by other visitors that have been called by a certain number. This information is used to identify the callers, whether or not it was legitimate, or simply an annoying telemarketing sales person.
Using Who Called Community Websites Works Well For:
- Identifying telemarketing calls and scams.
- Confirming legitimate calls such as banks or other institutions.
- Confirming legitimate promotions and offers.
- Second Method: Google the Phone Number.
Second Method: Google the Phone Number
That’s all, really. Type in nothing but the phone number including the area code into Google and hit search. This will do a few things. Firstly, if you we’re unsuccessful at finding a Who Called website with any results, Google might actually point you to one of more of these websites that have previous visitor comments regarding the calls they received from that same number.
Secondly, if this is a person’s phone number, and not an institution or scam telemarketing call, there is a chance that it may pull up a social media profile, be it LinkedIn or any other webpage where this person may have shared contact information on. Additional searching can be done the same way by searching directly on Facebook, or other websites such as local Craigslist pages. If this person left any old, or existing sales posts with their number, you might be able to pull some details.
Using Google to Search a Phone Number Works Well For:
- Quickly finding active Who Called Me forums discussing the number.
- Locating personal or social pages related to the phone number’s owner.
- Using alternate search databases such as Facebook, or Craigslist.
Third Method: Using a Legitimate Database for Reverse Lookup
If you are located in the United States or Canada, you may have some luck with www.411.com, www.whitepages.com, or www.yellowpages.com for business numbers. For US residents, WhitePages offers a paid premium membership service that reveals legitimate reverse lookup results that usually include name and address for both landline and cell phone numbers. This is the only safe paid service I can suggest, but I cannot unfortunately advise on any known similar service for Canada or other countries.
Using 411 and WhitePages Databases Works Well For:
- Legitimate reverse lookup results.
- Paid WhitePages Premium Service for US residents reveals caller details.
- Good results for all numbers due to having largest databases.
What to Watch Out For
The 3 methods I provided are safe to use, and will usually provide you the best available, and possible results. Due to an unproportioned amount of fake reverse lookup websites, my opinion is that it is not possible for a new user to distinguish between a legitimate and dangerous website. However, there are a few tell-tale signs that the website is absolute rubbish.
Most of these website allows you to search but ‘hide’ the allegedly real results until you complete surveys, and other offers that require your email, home address, and in some cases a purchase. You can usually tell right away if a website is fake, by spotting a fake progress bar indicating that the phone number is being traced, by satellite or other means. These sites get creative and add little icons to create a fake geographical path of the number being traced. All rubbish. Most of these websites use the same techniques to scam you, and end up having little to no useful information in their databases in the first place. As you can tell on the image below, this fake phone number tracing service successfully traced 555-555-5555, before promptly requesting that I fill out surveys, or purchase special offers in order to download the report.
Tell-Tale Signs of Fake Reverse Lookup Websites
- Sites requesting you to fill our surveys or offers for results
- Sites requiring personal details such as email, number, address
- Services requiring an app download and install – likely virus
- Sites with fake call tracing progress bars appearing before hidden results
- Sites that will always have a positive hidden result, even when you enter a fake number
- Services requiring payment by credit card – don’t give them your CC number
How to Trace Harassment or Abuse Phone Calls
On another note, you may be needing to trace a call for far more serious reasons. lf someone is using a cell phone or a landline to make repetitive abusive calls, your best bet is your local phone service provider, and local authorities. For a call to qualify as harassment, it usually implies that the caller is threatening you or others, putting you or others in danger, using foul and obscene language, or any other abusive acts over the telephone call that may break the law.
If you do not plan to contact authorities, in other words, the police, and file a complaint, than this method is of no use. The phone company will NEVER provide you someone’s private subscriber information, such as the caller’s name, phone number, or address. However, if you request to trace the call, and place a police complaint, the phone company will have the warrant to provide the information to the police officers, which whom in turn will investigate and communicate with you about this person. In most cases, they can trace the real number regardless if it was spoofed, or set to private caller.
Once this process is complete, the police will be able to determine the name and address of the caller, given that he is located in the same country. If he is overseas, although some information might be retrievable, you will usually be powerless in terms of bringing them to justice, unless they commit an actual physical crime act towards you.
Initially, if you are located in the United States or Canada, you should know that almost all phone carriers use *57 for their Call Trace feature. Here are the steps to take in order to quickly complete a call trace.
- Instantly after receiving the abusive phone call, hang up the receiver and wait a few seconds to ensure the call disconnects.
- Pick up your received and wait for the dial tone.
- Dial *57 or 1-1-5-7 if you’re on an older rotary phone. You must do this right after the call, before received any other calls, or it will trace the last received call.
- Wait for the line to connect, and follow the IVR instructions that may prompt you for questions, or simply confirm that the call trace was successfully completed.
- Contact your local law enforcement and submit your complaint.
The process does not end here, especially if the calls persist. Make sure to create a log of every call, recording the date and time of the call, as well as the displayed caller ID number, if any. Each time, you will have to repeat the call trace process in order to successfully trace each call, and build a solid case on which authorities will take action.
If you’re not in North America, and have no idea what the call trace code is, the first step is to contact your phone service provider’s technical support line, be it cell phone or landline, and explain the nature of the abusive calls, and ask how one can trace the call to later provide to authorities.
- Call your phone service provider’s tech support
- Explain situation and ask for * or # code for call trace
- Wait until caller calls again, and complete call trace as advise by provider
- Mark down date and time of completed trace
- Call police and file complaint, advise of completed call trace
- Police will contact phone provider for call trace and open investigation
In some scenarios, trying to trace an abusive call may lead to a dead end. As mentioned, if the caller is in another country, the police will not have jurisdiction to do anything about it. Additionally, if this was a single call, or the abusive caller never calls again, there is almost no way for your phone company to actually trace this call for you. If the nature of the call is very serious, they will usually put the effort into escalating it to their top security department to try and find that call, but only if you have the exact date and time of the call. In most cases, they will refuse with the right to do so, and the police will also refuse to investigate unless a call can be traced.
How to Trace a Nuisance Call
Finally we have nuisance calls, which qualify as extremely frustrating, and often difficult to stop, but don’t necessarily pose a threat or break the law. There are two distinct types of nuisance calls. One is simply a telemarketer, prankster, or any form of live caller that is unwanted or unsolicited by the receiver. Border line abusive calls can qualify as nuisance calls if there is nothing the police can do.
The second type is unintentional nuisance calls. These calls are usually repetitively received calls with no one at the other end, with possible noise or silence on the line. They can be caused by a variety of things. It can simply be someone trying to continually fax a wrong number, causing annoying fax tones until that person realizes their mistake. Or worse, a misconfigured or defective auto dialer that won’t stop calling you.
What is an Autodialer or Robocall?
An Autodialer, or Autodialler, is an electronic device or software app, used by companies to call a list of numbers without human assistance. If the call is answered, the auto dialler is capable of transferring the call to a person, or play a pre-recorded message over an IVR with prompts. View the infographic below from the FTC for a full overview of autodialers, and what steps to take if you get such calls.
Another problem with robocalls, is how badly managed they are. This can cause for numbers to be repetitively and incessantly called, but not connect you to anyone after you answer the call. Imagine being at home, or at the work office, and constantly getting dead air calls, and no way to stop them. This can be the worst situation for a business that needs to have available lines for inbound calls, and can sometimes be impossible to stop, even by the phone company.
What to Do In Case of Dead Air Nuisance Call
- Start marking down specific date and time of calls
- Contact your phone service’s tech support
- Advise them of situation and provide your call log
- They might require a call trace from you and other details
- Ask to busy out affected line if part of a Multi-Line system
In some cases, the phone company will be able to trace the call source, and advise the company of their faulty auto dialling equipment. Unfortunately, more often than not, the numbers are misconfigured, spoofed, or untraceable due to not being an actual hard line. In these cases, there is little the phone company can do. I speak of experience and these are some of the worst cases for a business to face, especially if they do business over the phone, such as a pizza delivery place, or medical emergency reception office. In such a scenario, it is usually best to remove, or change that number. Ask the phone service to busy out your line if you’re using multiple lines for inbound calls. This will effectively remove the nuisance calls until you swap that number.
It’s a good idea to add your numbers to the National Do Not Call List available across North America. To do so, simply call the registry at 1-888-382-1222, and follow the prompts, or visit www.donotcall.gov to complete the request online. If you are located in Canada, the website is https://www.lnnte-dncl.gc.ca/insnum-regnum-eng/. Please note that it can take many weeks before your number is added to this list, and all it effectively does, is prohibit telemarketers to call you, but there is no guarantee that they won’t. You should always advise unsolicited callers to stop calling your number, and warn them of a complaint if they refuse to do so. If you continue to receive unsolicited calls, you should place a complaint with the FTC and the FCC. Visit FTC’s page in helping with stopping unwanted calls and messages for additional information. This wraps up all the information I have regarding tracing calls, all the way to avoiding unwanted callers, and remember, a phone number cannot always be traced, unless authorities are involved with a warrant, and even then, the call must be local to your country or region.