Don’t Answer It

In March alone, the call-blocking service YouMail estimated that 5.2 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S.

By Kellyn Brown

There is little less unifying than our collective hate of robocalls. It’s a bipartisan issue, and unwanted calls, by far, elicit the most complaints to the Federal Communications Commission. I often receive as many robocalls over the course of a day as regular calls. And, in recent months, it has only gotten worse. For everyone.

First Orion, a provider of phone call and data solutions, predicts that “nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be fraudulent in 2019.” Anymore, it’s a gamble to answer any unrecognizable phone call and, if you do, chances are the caller is a solicitor or, worse, a scammer.

In March alone, the call-blocking service YouMail estimated that 5.2 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S., which is more than twice the number for the same month just three years ago. The so-called “Do Not Call” list is basically useless. Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said as much during a committee hearing last month: “I’m on a ‘Do Not Call’ list, but I still get the damn calls.”

Tester, a Democrat, and Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, are all pushing for legislation to stem the growing number of robocalls. One of those bills, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, is moving through the Senate and would increase penalties for offenders and give regulators more authority to block them.

During a recent congressional hearing, Gianforte told the story of one of his constituents receiving a phone call from her little brother’s phone number. “But it wasn’t here brother,” he said. “It was a scammer calling from her little brother’s number. Unfortunately, her little brother died of a heroin overdose a couple months previously.”

Robocallers have become more brazen and sophisticated. Now laws and technology are trying to catch up. Another bill proposed, this time in the U.S. House, would require large phone companies to implement technology that would tell consumers if an incoming call is legit.

Fortunately, carriers have already begun introducing standards they hope will at once verify all outbound calls for legitimacy and prohibit what’s known as “spoofing” — in which a robocaller falsifies information sent to your caller ID hoping you will be tricked into answering. Many of the spam calls I receive say they’re coming from Havre. It’s understandable why a Montanan would want to answer a number beginning with 406, the state’s lone prefix. Unfortunately, that’s often when the scam begins.

The voice on the other end may represent himself or herself as a representative of a federal agency, like the Internal Revenue Service, and say you owe back taxes. Or, they may try to convince you that your computer’s private information has been compromised and you need to pay for tech support. Some people pay, and the scammer moves on to the next potential victim.

The good news: Jim McEachern, a senior technology consultant at the communication industry standards body ATIS, thinks that in three to five years robocalls will be largely eliminated. But until then, be diligent when answering your phone.

Editor’s note: For an informative and entertaining podcast on telephone scammers and where they come from, check out Reply All episode #102: Long Distance

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