Illustration: Vicky Leta
It’s probably not just a feeling you have: Some people really do get way more spam calls, emails, and texts than others. For every fake McAfee order email your friend gets, you get three missives from African, Swedish, Jordanian, and Australian princes trying to take your money—plus two fake package tracking texts and a call about your car’s extended warranty. Is it just luck of the draw, or is there a more sinister reason this happens?
As it turns out, you’re not targeted more than your friends by scammers because the universe is out to get you. The more likely reason is you somehow ended up on a “sucker list” scammers use to target victims.
What is a scammers’ “sucker list”?
A sucker list is an aggregate list of names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information that is created, sold, and bought by scammers, spammers, and dishonest telemarketers.
Scammers like to classify us victims as “suckers” once we’ve fallen for any of their many tricks. Whether you’ve been scammed out of $10,000 worth of Bitcoin, picked up a spam call, or replied (even to unsubscribe) to a spam email, your actions have marked you as a sucker—an easy mark—in the view of scammers, and gotten you placed on a list.
There is no one sucker list; many of them are constantly making the rounds on the dark web. They can also get eerily specific. “You can buy details as specific as people who are 80, disabled, live alone, respond to communication and play the Lottery,” Louise Baxter, head of the National Trading Standards scams team, told BCC in one of the first reports about the subject back in 2014.
How do you get on the “sucker list”?
Traditionally, aside from falling for a scam, scammers send blanket emails, texts, calls, and messages on social media and wait to see who responds. Anyone who does gets added to the sucker list.
However, as a CBS News report uncovered, you don’t necessarily need to have fallen for a scam or have even shown signs of life to be added to a sucker list. The same CBS News report also explained there are “tiers” to the list, which they describe more of a “pyramid.” Those who respond to any solicitation are on the bottom of the pyramid. The more information you provided, the higher up the list you move. Those on top of the pyramid are the ones who outright fell for a scams, and are seem as the most “valuable” marks.
Another, more concerning way people can end up on a list is almost out of our control: Data broker companies collect personal information of millions of people and sell it for profit, sometimes to legit companies and sometimes to shadier types, according to a report from Kaspersky. They can collect your data from your web browsing history, public sources (like voter registration, court records, census data etc.), and commercial sources (like your online purchase history). Often you’ve even granted your consent for this to happen (like when you sign up to loyalty programs).
Your personal data is valuable to many parties: Marketers and businesses buy it from these brokers in order to offer more tailored advertisements. Some businesses buy it to verify that you are who you say you are (like when you get a new job and they run a background check on you). Insurance companies use it to see how risky of a bet you are, and use the information to set your rates. Even individuals can use sites like Spokeo to creep on their exes’ social media accounts.
The concerning part is that there is no federal law that makes it illegal for these companies to profit off of your information. The closest thing is California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which allows consumers to review the data collected about them and opt-out if they want. And this practice makes it susceptible to hacks (like Equifax’s 2017 data breach) and corrupt individuals from these companies who sell the data on the dark web for personal gain.
How do you get off the “sucker list”?
There’s no silver bullet solution to getting off the list or lists you might be on, but there are things you can do to go drop yourself down the tiers and reduce the number of spam communications you receive. With time, you can even drop off the list entirely.
Pay private companies to keep you away from data brokers
Some data brokerage companies offer services to remove you from other data broker lists, if for a fee, DeleteMe being one reliable option. World Privacy Forum provides a list of these services here. Keep in mind that you can do most of this opting out for free, but it’s more thorough and far less time consuming to pay a service like DeleteMe to do it for you. Paying one of these services won’t solve all your spam problems. It’ll help, but the effects will be short lived if you keep doing the things that got you on the sucker list in the first place.
Use a VPN
You can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to enhance your online privacy by keeping your IP address hidden as you go about the internet. Your data will also be encrypted.
Ask your charitable donations to be anonymous
If you donate money to charity, they very likely put you on a list to keep sending you donor information, and that list will probably eventually be sold or shared with other charities. Ask them to remove your name next time you donate.
Never respond to spam—even to unsubscribe
FTC Attorney M. Hasan Aijaz tells CBS News you can move down tiers on the list by not responding, clicking on spams, or acknowledging any of their attempts to trick you. Eventually, you will be dropped off the list entirely.
Change your phone number and email address
If you’ve been a victim of fraud, one step you can take is changing your telephone number and email address, notes Jake Moore, a cybersecurity adviser at software company ESET, speaking with The Daily Mail. While this is a hassle, it can make a big difference—especially if you keep your new contact info securely locked down. Use a Google Voice number or other temporary number you can forward to your phone, and use a separate email address for signing up for any mailing lists or deals.