Robocall 'epidemic' worsens, Florida a prime target
Mar. 23, 2018
MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) — 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 calls, counted Scott Gardiner of Melbourne, Florida, tallying how many spam calls he received in one day.
"I'm pretty sure it's been a phone number from every one of the 50 states, too," said Gardiner, noting he's losing patience. " ... I've asked to be put on the Do Not Call list. Yeah, that doesn't work."
But Gardiner knows he isn't special. He said his wife and mother-in-law "are in the same boat." Then there were the dozens of people who responded to a FLORIDA TODAY Facebook post noting they too understood the burden. Some were reporting upward of 20 calls a day.
It's a problem most people have in the Sunshine State have encountered, and — bad news — it's only getting worse.
So bad, in fact, that based on recent data from the popular app RoboKiller, which heavily monitors spam calls, Florida is one of the worst states for calls due to an influx of robocalls the company has flagged since the beginning of this year.
Data collected by the Federal Trade Commission, which monitors complaints, show Florida has always been among the worst states in sheer volume. Last year, 588,021 formal complaints were filed to the FTC, second only to California, which reported 823,692 spam or scam telemarketing calls — and those are just the calls actually reported.
"We accurately define it as an epidemic," said Ethan Garr, co-creator of RoboKiller, an app made to stop the calls. "What drives this is basic economics. Making these phone calls is so inexpensive for scammers. It costs them less than a penny per minute."
Garr said that Floridians get an average of 2.1 spam calls per day. He attributes that to the number of retirees here, as scammers generally go after the elderly who may not be as up to date with technology.
But where are these calls coming from? Are they even legal? And better yet, how do you get rid of them?
Well, they most certainly are not legal, said Keith Keogh, a lawyer out of Chicago who has been part of multiple class-action lawsuits against companies that robocall.
He referenced the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which designates that companies and individuals cannot bombard a person's phone with robocalls without their consent. If you're on the Do Not Call list, the calls aren't legal.
That doesn't stop them, though.
The masterminds behind these calls could be anyone: A guy sitting in his basement, a call center overseas, even terrorists, said Garr.
Many of the calls are run by small companies or even large overseas call centers that are looking for leads. They aim to refer people to different health care companies or loan agents who then pay them for the referral, said Keogh.
They key is to find out who is calling, he said, and if it's a legitimate company a person can sue if they're being harassed. Take screenshots of the call, and submit a formal complaint to make it all public record, Keogh advised. Consumers may be entitled to $500 per call, he said. However, settlements in class-action suits generally pay out less than that.
"We spend a lot of our time trying to find out who's calling ... and trying to go after these people," said Koegh. "There's really no way to get them to stop besides litigation. Their whole business model is making these calls in mass."
Having trouble viewing the graphic? Click here “
It seems hopeless sometimes, said Koegh, especially when callers are using local numbers to trick people into answering.
Chris Sharpe of Titusville knows this struggle. She shared a screenshot of seven calls she received in on day, all from spam callers. Five of those calls used a local area code.
But people are generally not litigious said Koegh, and most of the people he represents have tried time and time again to stop the calls to no avail.
That's where apps like RoboKiller step in, said Garr. His app uses audio fingerprinting and a constantly-updated algorithm to block calls before they get to a person's phone. The app's algorithm is also able to decipher legitimate calls from spam calls, he said.
But they don't just stop there. The best mechanism of defense is to connect to a real human, he said, and waste their time.
"If you can waste the human's time, you can start winning the battle," said Garr. "Time is money for them."
The company uses what it calls an "answerbox," which interacts with the robocall and is designed to get to an actual human and stall them. Users can customize their answerboxes as well for added fun, he said. Many of the answerboxes are actually "hilarious" he said.
RoboKiller is currently only available on iPhone, but will expand to Android later this month. Subscriptions cost $2.99 per month or $24.99 per year.
There are other options, though. According to CTIA, an FTC-recommended trade association representing manufacturers and providers of wireless products and services, there a number of call blocking apps available for various operating systems. Among the free options are Mr. Number (iPhone) and Blacklist (Android), which both have positive reviews.
"Here's the advice I give to people," said Garr. "If you're not going to invest in a solution, don't answer calls and don't give away information."
Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com