Photo illustration by John Lyman
Health + Tech /19 Jan 2019
01.19.19

The Rise of the Robocall Crisis in America

You’ve blocked numbers you know to be scams. You’ve added yourself to the National Do Not Call Registry and reported harassing calls religiously. And still, the robocalls keep rolling in.

Dealing with unwanted solicitations drives people crazy enough. To make matters worse, countless Americans have fallen prey to telephone scams, losing money they’ll likely never recover. What caused this recent upswing in robocalls, and, more importantly, what can people do to reduce their risk of falling victim to a phone predator?

The Extent of the Robocall Crisis

The phone rings. The number appears to come from your own area code, so you pick up the call, thinking perhaps an acquaintance is calling from a strange number. You say “hello,” only to hear a robotic voice declaring that you must not ignore this very important message.

Robocalls have accelerated at a frenzied pace — 60 percent of people have received a scam call in the last week alone, which is more than double what this percentage was in 2017. In days past, consumers could screen out robocalls from legitimate calls more easily, as many robocallers utilized fake 800 numbers to make themselves appear legitimate. Knowing that consumers have caught on to this setup has driven scammers to use neighbor spoofing, where they call from the same area code as their intended victim, leading people to pick up calls they’d otherwise ignore.

Those operating robocall services, be they scams or just unwanted solicitations, operate over a sizable tangle of carriers and networks, making culprits difficult to catch. In addition, lobbyists from the business sector have pressured lawmakers against instituting greater regulations, stating that restrictions prevent legitimate businesses from reaching potential customers. Yet from a consumer’s perspective, unwanted calls eat up valuable time that they could utilize for more important tasks and additionally make them hesitant to pick up the phone even when the caller has a legitimate purpose for the call.

More Sophisticated Scams

In addition to becoming more prevalent, scammers utilizing robocalls to lure victims into their traps have grown more sophisticated. Many phone scammers impersonate employees from governmental agencies such as the IRS or the Social Security Administration. Scammers even spoof their real number with the official phone numbers of these governing agencies, leading unsuspecting individuals to believe the phone call is to be taken seriously.

Scammers open their calls by providing fake yet threatening messages prompting the recipient to take action by pressing a number and requesting live help. Some sophisticated scams prompt victims to enter the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, capturing them with technology.

Scammers promise frightening consequences should the victim fail to comply with their request for money or information. One common scam involves the scammer impersonating a representative of the Social Security Administration calling to alert the victim that crimes related to their Social Security number (SSN) have frozen their account. Scammers threaten their intended victim with hefty fines or even jail time if they fail to confirm their SSN. Of course, scammers then steal the victim’s SSN, creating a case of identity theft that’s nearly impossible to solve.

Governmental Measures

Governmental agencies have noted the increase in robocalls and have taken some measures to try to stop the madness. However, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must balance the needs of citizens with the needs of business. As the current administration leans heavily toward protecting business interests, it remains unclear how rapidly they will implement measures to quiet the endless ringing.

Hope remains. In May of 2018, the FCC levied a $120 million fine against a telecommunications company engaged in neighbor spoofing. This situation marks the largest fine the FCC has leveled against a company for robocalling.

Legitimate telecommunication companies, frustrated that scam calls make potential customers unlikely to answer the phone, have implemented a technological innovation where each phone number is linked to a unique certificate. While this program is still in its infancy, telecommunication companies hope that phone providers will eventually intercept calls lacking a valid certificate before the call reaches the consumer.

Congress has also proposed legislation to restore people’s privacy and quiet. In November of 2018, Senator Dianne Feinstein, along with Amy Klobuchar and Richard Blumenthal, introduced the “REAL PEACE Act of 2018,” which would permit the FTC to aggressively go after companies who utilize robocalls.

Protecting Yourself and Your Money

In the meantime, however, unwanted robocalls continue to harass citizens. How can people protect themselves, their privacy and, most importantly, their wallets?

First of all, take pragmatic measures. The FCC recommends that individuals avoid answering calls from unfamiliar numbers as well as ones from unknown callers or blocked numbers. In addition, if a robocall instructs individuals to press a number to be connected with a live representative or give information like the last four digits of an SSN, hang up immediately.

Another measure consumers can take involves checking with their phone company about available robocall-blocking services. AT&T and Verizon both offer such services, and other phone companies likely have similar technology. Finally, people can download an app to their phone designed to block robocalls. Apps such as Hiya, Nomorobo, YouMail, and Robokiller all prevent robocalls with varying degrees of success.

Remember that governmental agencies such as the IRS and the Social Security Administration do not contact individuals via telephone unless the caller has first contacted them and requested a callback. Hang up on any calls from individuals claiming to be from a government agency you haven’t previously contacted.

Robocalls annoy, harass and irritate people, and they make a bad name for legitimate businesses who utilize telecommunications to reach potential customers. Phone scams also cost Americans billions of dollars annually. While awaiting solutions from the government, take every measure possible to both avoid becoming a victim and reclaim a bit of peace and quiet.

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