*My motivation in writing this article is not to cause alarm. In the last year both my parents AND my grandparents were targeted by aggressive robocall scams. This article is my revenge.
Six years ago, I decided to earn some summer money and paint apartments. Needing some liability coverage, I shopped around for painter’s insurance quotes online, entering my name and contact info into online forms without a thought. I was stupid.
To this day, I am still plagued with phone calls from those companies. At least two or three times a week, a mysterious number pops up on my phone, but the usual screening methods don’t work like they used to because the majority of these scam sandwiches are robocalls. A few months ago, I accidentally answered one, thinking it was my mother returning a call.
A foreign but friendly voice greeted me. He didn’t speak quickly, but his sentences offered no gaps to interrupt, like he was speaking in a long, slow exhale.
“Hello, I am calling for your car insurance which is danger of elapsing due to missed payment. We will need your contact information and employment status to reinstate the policy to prevent an emergency.” Obviously this guy wasn’t from Esurance.
Long since exasperated with these scumbags, I squeezed my smartphone. “Look, I know this is a scam. Do not–”
“How could you say something like that to me?!” the now-hurt voice said. I could almost see him reeling back from the phone, hurt by my response.
But what response? His words, in the context of what I said, made no sense. I said nothing for a moment, surprised as well. Then I thought bot. This is a damn bot.
“Tell me something. What’s two plus two?” I asked.
“I am sorry, sir, but maybe we should discuss this matter at another time,” the voice said. The line went dead.
That was the first time I had witnessed how sophisticated robocalls had become. It shouldn’t be a surprise. In the age of Deep Blue, miraculous video game AI, laptops a quarter-inch thick and quantum computing, the robocall industry must be heavily vested in improving their Scammy McScamScam technology.
In fact, it’s a HUGE business. The US Spam and Scam Report by Harris Poll estimated robocalling companies made over $9.5 billion dollars in 2018.
Saddest of all are the marks these robocalls target. Immigrants, the elderly and college students are highest on their list of marks. My own grandparents have been preyed upon, although thankfully never fell for anything.
The most common robocall scams range from fake lawyers promising to resolve fake legal issues to spoofing popular charities. These calls harvest cash by manipulating people using fear, greed, ignorance…whatever works. And it does work.
Now robocalls are spreading like plague rats. The Federal Communications Commission projected that robocalls would make up 45%, or nearly half, of all calls to cell phones by 2019. In 2016 it was less than 5%. That’s terrifying growth.
Fourteen years ago, the Do Not Call Registry once provided a measure of protection from the plague of telemarketers, but that registry is impotent against robocalls. While it still prevents legitimate businesses from soliciting citizens over the phone, robocalling companies are already committing fraud. A symbolic registry won’t slow them down.
Call screening is a crap shoot since any smartphone can spoof caller ID. A person can call from New Dehli and have it show up on caller ID as Louisville, Kentucky.
What to do? The FCC offers a list of tips to avoid robocalling scams.
Do not answer numbers you do not recognize. The number might be legitimate, but if the call’s important, they’ll leave a message. This is like the old-fashioned answering machine screening. And it works.
Hang up if a phone call begins with a prerecorded message. DO NOT SPEAK. Capturing your voice is another profitable moneymaker for scam artists. All they need is to get you clearly saying “yes” and an enterprising scam artist can leverage that into thousands.
Any solicitation proposal that sounds too good to be true, IS. Hang up. This was sound advice five hundred years ago and it still is today. There’s no such thing as easy money.
Neither Apple nor Microsoft will call you to fix errors in your operating system. This is one of the most common scams used to fool the elderly or those that have only basic knowledge of computers. My own parents were targets of this scam, but were wary enough to contact me. When I spoke to the scammer on the phone, I let loose with cursing so vicious, birds dropped dead from the sky. It was very satisfying.
Report ANY suspicious number to the FCC by going HERE. The FCC’s primary strategy in combating robocalls hopes to compile an exhaustive list of Scammy McScamScam numbers (not their technical name). Each added number closes one door for robocalling and increases the effectiveness of the blacklist. It’s arduous and slow, but it will work.
Indiana actually has fairly strict laws when it comes to robocalls, which is surprising considering the Hoosier state is usually hands off in regulatory restrictions.
According to Indiana state law, ANY call in Indiana that utilizes a recording, even political fundraisers or debt collectors, MUST be coupled with a live operator. A person HAS to be on the other end of that line. Although this law doesn’t slow the worst of the robocalling crowd, it does slow down gray hat hackers and small robocalling outfits.
The most intimidating hurdle in the war against robocalling is that any sweeping law passed to deal with them may affect the rights of private citizens, largely on the grounds of restricted speech. It’s the kind of choice that’s particularly distasteful to Americans: give up a little freedom and be safe; or take the risk with the greater freedom?
With technology improving in leaps and bounds, any future bill that hopes to curtail robocalling must be fairly invasive. It can’t be a half-measure. Although dozens of proposals have been introduced to federal legislature over the last few years, no single bill has ever found enough support to pass (HERE’s the most recent).