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Robocalls are disrupting coronavirus contact tracing

Ethan Wolff-Mann
·Senior Writer
·4 min read

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, robocalls remained public enemy number one for the FCC and pretty much anyone with a phone. Now, they’re interfering with a key coronavirus defense strategy — contact tracing.

Robocallers have gotten good at using fake caller ID and other clever tactics to bypass call filtering and number blocking to get you to pick up — which has, in turn, left some people to simply stop answering their phones when a call comes from a number they don’t know.

According to Transaction Network Services, a company known as TNS that provides telecom data and call filtering for companies like Verizon (Yahoo's parent company), Sprint, US Cellular, and more, the 86 million robocalls have Americans receive every year has been disrupting the contact tracing efforts, rendering them less effective.

TNS said that recent research found that 83 out of 100 residents who received a COVID-19-related contact tracing call thought it was a scam.

Telemarketer robocaller scam calling smartphone with woman holding telephone in house
Telemarketer robocaller scam calling smartphone with woman holding telephone in house

TNS has identified 8.2 million contact tracing calls since May. While it doesn’t have specific answer rates for those calls, its data shows that only 8%-10% of the population answer a call when only a number is listed on the caller ID. When there’s more caller ID information, the answer rates go up to around 40%.

This is thanks to robocalls, that have killed the credibility of a call from an unknown number.

“We'd venture to say that agencies around the country don't realize how big this problem is nor are leveraging a service provider to get their contact tracing calls answered,” TNS’s chief product officer Bill Versen told Yahoo Finance.

The tough thing here is that sometimes it actually is a scam. According to the FTC, contact tracing has been a gambit for scammers during the pandemic, leading the agency to advise people that contact tracers will never ask for Social Security numbers, immigration status, bank account or credit card details, or ask you to click on any links or download files.

Contact tracing requires you to answer the phone if the health department calls

Contact tracing — getting in touch with people who have come in contact with the virus — in some countries has worked well using both phone calls and apps. But privacy concerns around data as well as the low credibility of unsolicited calls poses a problem for efforts in the U.S. (Though Versen added that Canada has a similar problem with spam calls.)

The new coronavirus contact tracing app on an iPhone, which was launched across England and Wales on Thursday morning. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
The new coronavirus contact tracing app on an iPhone, which was launched across England and Wales. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

Some contract tracing operations have recognized this problem and have taken TNS up on its free caller ID services, which allow tracers to boost their answer rates.

“As a free service to health organizations, they can register their contact tracing telephone numbers to TNS. Upon registration, TNS will validate the agency and provision their number so that when they call the mobile phones of Americans with important health information, the organization’s name is displayed to improve answer rates,” said Versen.

What this means is that the call is “branded,” so the agency’s name is visible — and sometimes even a logo and reason for the call, something that vastly improves the answer rates.

So far, tracers in “almost every state” are represented, giving them enhanced caller ID on the phones of over 120 million people with phones in the U.S.

The FCC and phone companies have been slowly improving robocall defense by implementing a system called STIR/SHAKEN to authenticate calls. But the networks have not fully implemented the system yet, leaving phones vulnerable to spammers and scammers.

There are spikes across the U.S. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
There are spikes across the U.S. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Since you might be getting calls from a hospital, local health department, a school, or any other entity that is performing contact tracing, should you be more amenable to answer the phone when you don’t recognize the caller ID? TNS’s Versen says no. You should still let it ring.

“Legitimate callers will leave a voicemail or find another way to contact you via email, SMS or a personalized app,” he said.

Versen said calls that look legitimate could be coming from something called a “Wangiri” scam where you’re supposed to call back — often after one ring and a hangup — and you get charged huge international fees. Or, it could just be phishing.

“The bad actor may also be simply phishing for working telephone numbers to use as an outbound telephone number in another scheme or sell them on the dark web,” said Versen. “Answering the call lets the bad actor know that this is a working telephone number.”

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.