Phone dependency feeds robocall epidemic

Linda Robertson
Miami Herald

The IRS is coming to arrest you for tax evasion. A debt collector requires immediate payment. A hotel chain is offering a free vacation. The electric company will disconnect your service because of an overdue bill. Your credit card company is cutting your interest rate, or notifying you of a security breach. A doctor wants to sell you pills for chronic back pain at a discounted price.

In medieval times, the Black Plague descended on mankind. Today, we are consumed by an epidemic of robocalls.

Every day, all day, we are assaulted by phone calls from con artists trying to take our money or steal our identities. Even if you’re no chump and don’t fall for the scheme to repair your credit from an Aberdeen, Md., number, or accept the very last chance to avoid appearing before a grand jury by speaking to a federal agent and obtaining your case number from an Oxford, Ohio, number, or receive a free medical alert system and the peace of mind that comes with it from a Los Angeles number, an annoying disembodied voice has intruded into your personal space and cluttered your phone.

The number of unwanted automated calls received by Americans has surged to 4 billion per month, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That’s about 1,543 calls per second. Scam calls have skyrocketed from 4 percent of all calls to mobile phones in 2016 to 29 percent in 2018, and are projected to reach 45 percent next year, according to First Orion, a company that provides call-blocking and management technology.

“Scammers increasingly invade our privacy at new extremes,” said Charles Morgan, chief executive and data scientist at First Orion, which declares on its home page: “We know, it’s a heroic mission to get people to answer their phones again.”

Robocalling is a big, lucrative business. Americans are swindled out of $9.5 billion each year, estimates the 2018 annual U.S. Spam and Scam Report conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Truecaller, a caller ID and block company. Hucksters prey on elderly people, students, small business owners and immigrants.

A recent ruse targeted Chinese communities in U.S. cities and netted $3 million, the Federal Trade Commission said. The callers, speaking Mandarin, posed as Chinese embassy officials urgently requesting personal information or credit card numbers in order to resolve the recipient’s legal problems.

After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Florence, fake charities unleashed a barrage of calls pleading for donations to help victims.

In South Florida, where fraud proliferates like pythons, the volume of scam calls is among the highest in the nation. The 305 and 954 area codes, combined, ranked fifth among the top 20 cities in August, according to research by YouMail. Con men know that if a sucker is born every minute, that number multiplies in South Florida, a magnet for gullible get-rich-quick aspirants. If you live here, chances are you receive at least two robocalls per day.

Miami robocaller Adrian Abramovich was fined a record $120 million by the FCC, which described his operation as “one of the largest — and most dangerous — illegal robocalling campaigns that the Commission has ever investigated.” The FCC said Abramovich made nearly 100 million calls in the last three months of 2016 — about 44,000 per hour. He used phony caller IDs to pose as Marriott, Expedia, Hilton and TripAdvisor, and duped people into buying “exclusive” travel deals. Recipients were prompted by an automated message to press 1, and if they did, they were transferred to operators at a Mexican call center that paid Abramovich for call traffic.

The stream of robocalls also disrupted the network of a medical paging company sending emergency dispatches.

“Mr. Abramovich could have delayed vital medical care, making the difference between a patient’s life and death,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

The robocall explosion has been fueled by technological advances. Robotexting is on the rise, too. Access to an Internet-connected phone system enables fraudsters to pump out untraceable calls by the thousands for less than a penny each. It’s cheap. If they can fool even a small percentage of recipients, they’re making good money, said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, an app that prevents robocalls.

Consumer advocates are worried about a new flood of un-blockable calls if the FCC abides by a court ruling that struck down regulations imposed during former President Barack Obama’s administration. Lawmakers have proposed the HANGUP Act, the ROBOCOP Act and other measures to restrict robocalls, but the banking and credit card industries oppose them. Of the top robocalls in August by volume, most were from banks, debt collectors, and health insurance and loan scammers, according to YouMail.

The FTC controls the Do Not Call Registry — on which 230 million Americans list their numbers — and logged 4.5 million complaints last year, a 33 percent increase from 2016.

The registry was created to curtail legitimate telemarketing, but scammers ignore it. They stay a step ahead of authorities by constantly changing their names and numbers, moving overseas or devising new methods of impersonation.

The “spoofing” tactic masks the originating number and makes it appear that a call is coming from the recipient’s local area by mimicking the area code and often the first three digits of the personal number of the recipient, who is more likely to answer if the call looks familiar.

Robocallers use scare tactics, such as this one that sounds like it was translated by a Russian bot: “You will be taken under custody by the local cops, as there are four serious allegations pressed on your name at this moment.”

Robocallers are able to confirm your line is working even if you don’t answer and the call goes to your voicemail. They can sell your number to another robocaller.

The FTC says that if it’s a recording, it’s a robocall, and if you haven’t authorized it, it is illegal.

Want to avoid getting scammed? Don’t answer suspicious calls with numbers from unfamiliar places. If you answer and hear an automated message, hang up. Don’t press any number or say anything. Never provide personal or financial information or agree to a wire transfer. Be skeptical of any too-good-to-be-true pitches, because they always are. Report fraudulent calls so the number can go on the national blacklist. Call the FCC at 888-225-5322 or the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP or go to the FTC website.

There’s the “can you hear me?” scam. Don’t reply. They can record your “yes” response, splice it and use it against you. Tempting as it may be to engage with the scammer and pretend that you’re being tricked and then expose the lowlife and his or her clumsy scheme, don’t.

Beware of the Apple or Windows tech support scam, which requires downloading a program on your computer that is really a virus that will steal your identity.

Be wary of the call reporting suspicious activity on your credit card. Call the legitimate number on your credit card to check.

Don’t fall for the free gift scam that asks you to press 1 to learn more. You’ll learn that you were bamboozled.

In the “congratulations-you-won-a-contest” scam, the caller promises a wire transfer will be made to you but you have to pay the 1 percent processing fee of your $10 million prize.

The IRS scam is easy to detect. The IRS doesn’t call taxpayers threatening them with prison for not paying taxes.

Any mention of Nigeria, goodbye.

The robocall and telemarketing industries have spawned the call-blocking, call-screening industry. There are a variety of blocking apps, such as RoboKiller, which answers, connects with a human operator and then plays a recorded ‘gotcha’ message, or Nomorobo, which intercepts calls. YouMail also provides a community directory where consumers can search for or report nuisance numbers.

Phone carriers are finding more ways to authenticate real phones and flag spoofed numbers.

“We have blocked more than 4 billion robocalls in our network,” said Kelly Starling, spokesperson for AT&T in South Florida. “We have worked to identify the sources of the calls, block them before they go through and provide consumers with tools to block unwanted calls, like AT&T Call Protect.”

It was inevitable that Americans’ Pavlovian dependency on phones would be exploited. The robocalling epidemic gives you a good reason to just turn it off.