Soon, half of all phone calls will be robocalls

October 9, 2018

Miami Herald

MIAMI — The IRS is coming to arrest you for tax evasion. A debt collector requires immediate payment. A hotel chain is offering a free vacation. Florida Power & Light will disconnect your service because of an overdue bill. Your credit card company is cutting your interest rate, or notifying you of a security breach. A doctor wants to sell you pills for chronic back pain at a discounted price.

Today, we are consumed by an epidemic of robocalls.

Every day, all day, we are assaulted by phone calls from con artists trying to take our money or steal our identities. Even if you’re no chump and don’t fall for the scheme to repair your credit from an Aberdeen, Md., number, or accept the very last chance to avoid appearing before a grand jury by speaking to a federal agent and obtaining your case number from an Oxford, Ohio, number, or receive a free medical alert system from a Los Angeles number, an annoying disembodied voice has intruded into your personal space and cluttered your phone.

The number of unwanted automated calls received by Americans has surged to 4 billion per month, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That’s about 1,543 calls per second. Scam calls have skyrocketed from 4 percent of all calls to mobile phones in 2016 to 29 percent in 2018, and are projected to reach 45 percent next year, according to First Orion, a company that provides call-blocking technology.

Robocalling is a big, lucrative business. Americans are swindled out of $9.5 billion each year, estimates the 2018 annual U.S. Spam and Scam Report conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Truecaller, a caller ID and block company. Hucksters prey on elderly people, students, small business owners and immigrants.

he robocall explosion has been fueled by technological advances. Robotexting is on the rise, too. Access to an Internet-connected phone system enables fraudsters to pump out untraceable calls by the thousands for less than a penny each. It’s cheap. If they can fool even a small percentage of recipients, they’re making good money, said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, an app that prevents robocalls.

Scammers stay a step ahead of authorities by constantly changing their names and numbers, moving overseas or devising new methods of impersonation.

The “spoofing” tactic masks the originating number and makes it appear that a call is coming from the recipient’s local area by mimicking the area code and often the first

three digits of the personal number of the recipient, who is more likely to answer if the call looks familiar.

Robocallers are able to confirm your line is working even if you don’t answer and the call goes to your voicemail. They can sell your number to another robocaller.

The FTC says that if it’s a recording, it’s a robocall, and if you haven’t authorized it, it is illegal.

Want to avoid getting scammed? Don’t answer suspicious calls with numbers from unfamiliar places. If you answer and hear an automated message, hang up. Don’t press any number or say anything. Never provide personal or financial information or agree to a wire transfer. Be skeptical of any too-good-to-be-true pitches, because they always are. Report fraudulent calls so the number can go on the national blacklist. Call the FCC at 888-225-5322 or the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP or go to the FTC website.

There’s the “can you hear me?” scam. Don’t reply. They can record your “yes” response, splice it and use it against you. Tempting as it may be to engage with the scammer and pretend that you’re being tricked and then expose the lowlife and his or her clumsy scheme, don’t.

Beware of the Apple or Windows tech support scam, which requires downloading a program on your computer that is really a virus that will steal your identity.

Be wary of the call reporting suspicious activity on your credit card. Call the legitimate number on your credit card to check.

Don’t fall for the free gift scam that asks you to press 1 to learn more. You’ll learn that you were bamboozled.

In the “congratulations-you-won-a-contest” scam, the caller promises a wire transfer will be made to you but you have to pay the 1 percent processing fee of your $10 million prize.

The IRS scam is easy to detect. The IRS doesn’t call taxpayers threatening them with prison for not paying taxes.

Any mention of Nigeria, goodbye.

The robocall and telemarketing industries have spawned the call-blocking, call-screening industry. There are a variety of blocking apps, such as RoboKiller, which answers, connects with a human operator and then plays a recorded ‘gotcha’ message, or Nomorobo, which intercepts calls. YouMail also provides a community directory where consumers can search for or report nuisance numbers.

Phone carriers are finding more ways to authenticate real phones and flag spoofed numbers.

“We have blocked more than 4 billion robocalls in our network,” said Kelly Starling, spokesperson for AT&T in South Florida. “We have worked to identify the sources of the calls, block them before they go through and provide consumers with tools to block unwanted calls, like AT&T Call Protect.”

It was inevitable that Americans’ Pavlovian dependency on phones would be exploited. The robocalling epidemic gives you a good reason to just turn it off.

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