The deluge from spammers and fraudsters disrupting our lives with unsolicited calls has reached such epidemic proportions that both houses of Congress have passed bills proposing solutions to deter robocalling and more effectively punish violators.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says that anytime you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, you have been robocalled. The technique assists scammers from bogus companies in claiming such bonanzas as lowering your utility bills, reducing credit card rates, awarding government grants, offering free vacation packages or claiming you owe the IRS.
The 26.3 billion robocalls placed to mobile devices across the country in 2018 represent an average of seven monthly calls per person and a 46 percent rise in such calls since 2017, according to Hiya, a provider of caller profile information.
A 2019 report from Transaction Network Services (TNS) offers additional insights: more than two-thirds of calls from legitimate toll-free numbers are nuisance or high risk; one in 4,000 mobile numbers a month is hijacked by spoofers; 20 percent of people experiencing hijacks disconnect their phone; spoofing of neighbors’ phone numbers represents 24 percent of all unwanted calls; and unsolicited calls from Canada have risen by more than 100 percent.
“If you’ve received a lot robocalls calls recently, you’re not alone,” the BBB acknowledged in its July newsletter. “Nearly 2.4 billion robocalls are made every month, according to the FCC. The number has increased significantly in the past few years because internet-powered phone systems have made it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal calls and display fake caller ID information.”
The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, approved 97-1 by the Senate in January, proposes increased penalties for violators; pushes telecoms service providers to enable call authentication validating that the caller ID is actually the number originating the call; and establishes a government task force to improve enforcement and prosecution. The House’s Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, passed July 24 by a 429-3 margin, also would supply the FCC with expanded legal powers and pressure carriers to enhance authentication. Now that the legislative bodies have agreed on the need, they next must finalize and approve a version that will be acceptable to the president.
Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been pressing 14 carriers to move forward with call authentication using SHAKEN/STIR technology. At least half already have provided leadership and/or satisfactory assurance for 2019, and Pai has threatened the others with unspecified “regulatory intervention.”
SHAKEN and STIR are acronyms for technology protocols that verify calls on both dialing and receiving ends with digital signatures to ensure that caller ID matches the originating number. The technology does not stop unwanted calls, but signals the consumer with a “Call Verified” message on the phone screen.
T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T are among the companies currently running the technology in one fashion or another, often requiring select phones with software updates.
Lisa Belot with Sprint Corporate Communications said Sprint is “fully committed to deploying SHAKEN/STIR and plans to implement and test cross-carrier interoperation this year. We believe deployment of these technologies will be an important step in Sprint and the industry’s continuing work to eradicate the plague of illegal and unwanted robocalls.”
Complaints about robocalling from consumers across the U.S., Canada and Mexico are logged by BBB Scam Tracker, according to Marilyn Huffman, regional director of the BBB serving the Pacific Southwest.
“The number one way scammers contact consumers is still by phone,” Huffman explained. “Most robocalls calls are ‘phishing.’ The fraudsters are calling and hoping a consumer will give them personal information, [such as] address, phone, date of birth and in some cases social security numbers and/or banking information.”
Huffman stated that the number of inquiries received this year for the Greater Arizona, San Diego, Orange and Imperial County areas is more than 850, with a total monetary loss of $572,433. For all BBBs, that combined loss is $347,696,967 spread across 24,000 inquiries.
“Remember, this is only the number of reported cases,” she cautioned. “Not everyone feels comfortable reporting they have been a victim of a scam.”
Knowing the difference between legal and illegal robocalls helps consumers fight the intrusions, according to Huffman. Candidates running for public office and charities requesting donations are exempt, she explained, as are reminder messages from your physician’s office. Banks and telephone carriers also are excused as long as they make the calls themselves.
“In the U.S., an immediate red flag is if the recording is trying to sell you something,” Huffman said. “If the recording is a sales message, and you haven’t given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal.”
The burden is on the telemarketer to obtain “your written consent, whether through paper or electronic means, to receive a call or message,” Huffman continued. “Simply buying a product, or contacting a business with a question, does not give them legal permission to call you. The new rules also require telemarketers to allow you to opt out of receiving additional telemarketing robocalls immediately during a prerecorded telemarketing call through an automated menu.”
High-risk scam and fraud robocalls decreased 18 percent in 2018 over the previous year, according to TNS. The company attributes the reduction to the FCC’s recent enforcement actions and proactive carrier and telecommunications industry initiatives.
“The No. 1 thing I tell people is ‘Do not answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number,’” Huffman emphasized. “Every time you answer, the computer making the robocall marks that number as ‘responsive.’ If you really want the calls to go away, stop answering. If it is someone you know, they will leave a message and you can return their call. There are also several options available through local phone providers which can help protect you…check them out. Lastly, do not be afraid to report unwanted calls. It will help action be taken, as a whole, to protect the public and it just may help someone else avoid becoming a victim.”
If you do receive a bogus call, Huffman recommends you hang up, block and report. She advises against speaking to the violators or pressing buttons claiming to remove you from a list. Alert employees or household members to distrust callers claiming to be from the IRS or Social Security Administration. Options for call blocking vary by phone model, service provider and network, but you can call visit ftc.gov/calls for advice. Reporting violations is vital for law enforcement efforts. Report unwanted calls online at ftc.gov/complaint or bbb.org/scamtracker/us. QCBN
By Sue Marceau, QCBN