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Blocking robocalls – even racist ones – is a giant, complicated challenge, experts say

September 23, 2018

By now, most people have probably noticed a surge in the number of robocalls ringing their phones – those irritating prerecorded messages that arrive, unsolicited, to market a product, scam people out of money or promote a political candidate.

Billions of robocalls are sent each month, but a tiny fraction of them have attracted extra scrutiny.

In recent months, an estimated 10,000 robocalls appearing in at least five states have been linked to Scott D. Rhodes, a 49-year-old neo-Nazi who rants about Jews and other minorities from his rental home just outside Sandpoint.

The calls are vulgar, inflammatory and sometimes perceived as threatening. They have rung both cellphones and landlines. All of them close with a disclaimer that they were “paid for by theroadtopower.com” – a video podcasting site where Rhodes spews additional racist vitriol.

Some of those calls have promoted political candidates, including John Fitzgerald and Patrick Little, Holocaust deniers in California who lost congressional races by large margins this year. One call mocked Andrew Gillum, Florida’s black Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Another of Rhodes’ messages rang phones in Spokane and defended a local transit official who was accused of making racist remarks on Facebook. Yet another railed against the Hispanic community in Iowa after the murder of college student Mollie Tibbetts. Yet another appeared in Charlottesville, Virginia, calling for the deportation of black people to Africa.

In a moment when social media companies and internet service providers are under pressure to ban or “deplatform” users who repeatedly and deliberately spread hate and misinformation, robocalls appear to be one of few remaining low-cost communication tools for people like Rhodes.

“It costs him very little to send out messages of hate, and so that’s the preferred choice,” said Christie Wood, the president of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which played a critical role in dissolving the Aryan Nations in the 1990s.

“When you look at the cost of printing the pamphlets that they’ve done in the past, I guess this is the most cost-effective mode,” Woods said. “But it’s intrusive. It’s alarming. The people who get the calls are disgusted by it. So I really don’t see how he thinks he’s making any inroads. It’s a mystery to me that he thinks it’s effective.”

Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act in 1991, hoping to put an end to spam phone calls, but advancements in technology have left regulators scrambling for ways to enforce the law.

Voice over internet protocol, or VoIP, enabled users of services like Skype and Google Voice to place calls halfway around the world at little or no cost, but it also paved the way for spammers to send thousands of calls per hour using only a web-connected computer and some open-source software. A number of companies also host robocalls – often for legal, legitimate purposes – for as little as a penny per call.

Another problem is the ease with which spammers can “spoof” phone numbers – that is, change the numbers associated with incoming robocalls so they appear to come from trusted contacts, even neighbors with the same area codes and prefixes.

There are many legitimate uses for spoofing, however. A doctor’s office, for example, may want to call patients to remind them of upcoming appointments, while always showing recipients the same phone number and not a specific extension. That means the technology isn’t likely to go away.

Despite the creation of a National Do Not Call Registry, the number of illegal robocalls and telemarketing calls has skyrocketed in recent years.

State regulators have limited power to address the issue. In an email, Kate Griffith, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the agency’s robocall rule “only applies to landline calls, not VoIP or cell phones. As well, it only covers in-state calls, meaning a call originating in Idaho is not under the jurisdiction of this rule.”

That leaves the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, which assembled an “Industry Robocall Strike Force” in 2016.

One company, Transaction Network Services, works with cell carriers to analyze massive amounts of call data in real time, quickly identifying robocall activity by examining certain markers associated with each number.

Lavinia Kennedy, senior product manager for the company’s Call Guardian service, said an algorithm singles out invalid and unallocated phone numbers, numbers that have never been used before and numbers labeled “do not originate” – for example, a 1-800 number that accepts but does not send out calls.

TNS relays this information to cell carriers, which, under an FCC rule approved last year, may block or flag the calls before they reach consumers’ phones.

“The question is now: Are carriers doing that?” Kennedy said. “And it’s really up to the carrier. The rule doesn’t say you must block. It says you can block.”

The telecom industry is also working feverishly to develop a more sophisticated technology, known by the acronym STIR/SHAKEN, that would assign each phone a digital certificate to assure people calls are coming from the numbers they claim to be coming from. This system, still years from being widely implemented, mirrors technology long used to authenticate emails and websites.

In the meantime, Jim Tyrrell, senior director of product marketing for Transaction Network Services, said people may want to brace for even more robocalls in the coming weeks.

“As we near the midterms, illegitimate and illegal political robocalling are going to increase and there’s probably some steps that voters could take to avoid falling victim,” Tyrrell said, noting that some malicious robocalls have given people incorrect voting locations. “They should double-check where they’re supposed to vote and not give any personal information over the phone.”

Alex Quilici, the founder and chief executive of YouMail, a California company that develops a popular robocall-blocking app, analyzed messages linked to Scott Rhodes using “audio fingerprinting” technology.

He said Rhodes appeared to be responsible for about 10,000 robocalls across the country.

That’s a far cry from the 350,000 messages Rhodes once claimed to have sent to California. Still, his robocalls have made headlines and disturbed residents everywhere they have appeared.

“Fortunately, all of our users who got one pretty much reported it as spam and said something like ‘racist jerk’ or ‘What is this nonsense?’ ” Quilici said. “So that made me feel good about humanity.”

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