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Why spam robocalls are increasing and what's being done about it

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer
Spam phone calls are getting worse. But they could get better soon. Source: Reuters

Robots and computers aren’t just taking people’s jobs, they’re also calling everybody and leaving messages about sweet business loan opportunities that you have been chosen for. Recently, these annoying spam calls have been on the rise, leaving people increasingly frustrated.

It’s hard to measure robocall volume directly. Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, put the figure at 2.4 billion calls each month. If there isn’t great data about the number of unwanted calls which feature a recorded message instead of a live person, a good proxy is the number of consumer complaints.

Both the FCC and Federal Trade Commission work to fight robocalls. Janice Kopek, the coordinator of the FTC’s Do Not Call program, told Yahoo Finance the agency typically receives about 5 million complaints and about 3.4 million of those come from robocalls.

The robocall epidemic has a very simple cause: Moore’s law and technological advances. “The tech to make these calls is readily accessible and inexpensive, so years ago it would cost you to pay telemarketers to sit and make the calls, and the calls themselves would expensive,” Kopek said. “Now through voice and internet technology you can blast out billions of calls with prerecorded messages from anywhere in the world and that can cost you pennies.”

The ever-growing flood of robocall puts the FTC’s robocall enforcement division at an incredible disadvantage. It’s a small US government agency against a pest that can be outside the commission’s jurisdiction. Many of the robocalls — the free cruises, IRS scams, and business financing — come from beyond US borders, from far-flung locals in Eastern Europe, Asia, or pretty much wherever there is internet.

It’s not just annoying, it’s expensive

Robocalls aren’t just prank calls on an industrial level. They cost people in the US hundreds of millions each year due to scams. “The first type is a telemarketing call that’s trying to get you to buy something or assess your interest,” said Kopek. And even if you’re not on the Do Not Call list, Kopek says that call is illegal.

The second type is pure scam, trying to lure people using fear or a tantalizing opportunity. “We see all sorts of impostor scams where people are calling and pretending to be a [legitimate] government [agency], corporation, relative and try to get you to send money,” said Kopek. “Microsoft technical support,” IRS scams, lottery scams, elderly grandparents scams are all popular – and malicious – options that unfortunately succeed.

Fighting the good fight

Though you’d never notice due to the deluge of calls, the FTC has been tracking down robocallers and slapping them with lawsuits. Kopek told Yahoo Finance that the agency has made 131 law enforcement actions going after over 700 companies and individuals who it has alleged are responsible for illegal calls to consumers.

The FTC isn’t alone. The FCC has brought 13 formal actions of its own since 2013, most notably hitting a Florida travel agency with a $3 million fine for calls that promoted travel deals.

According to Kopek, cracking down begins with looking into the complaint database, a vital tool for the agency. Filing a complaint may seem like a futile exercise, but it can make a difference. “[Consumer complaints] go into our decision-making about what to pursue,” said Kopek. “Some call centers aren’t in the US so that can present challenges, but we do try to reach them in other ways. We try to develop international relationships to encourage local law enforcement abroad.”

The only solution is a tech solution

Both the FTC and FCC understand that going after robocallers individually is an incomplete strategy. The FTC realized the limitations of law enforcement a few years ago, Kopak says, and pivoted its key strategy to facilitating technology solutions. If tech can make robocalls, the thinking goes, tech can stop them.  

 

Fighting fire with fire isn’t something either commission can do on its own, or without the heavy hitters like phone and device companies. According to Kopek, a big portion of both the FTC and FCC’s strategy is enabling these private companies to fix the problem. To that end, the FCC has begun looking into ways to give carriers more authority to block more calls.

Another strategy is to stoke startups to devise a solution. The FTC has held competitions for the best anti-robo app and winners have included apps like Nomorobo, which won in 2013. The free-for-landlines ($1.99-a-month for iPhones) might help some people, but it’s far from the sweeping solution that the public craves.

Regulators have attempted to prod major private companies to fix the annoyances, and some progress is being made. AT&T (T) has data scientists who look for robocall patterns in around 1.5 billion calls each day, finding and blocking about 12 million. And according to the company, help from potential rule changes that the FCC is looking into could allow them to block “literally billions more unwanted calls from reaching consumers.”

In 2016, telecom industry groups launched a strike force on robocalling, focusing on how to deal with spoofing, which is when a caller impersonates someone else’s caller ID. The groups have developed an anti-spoofing protocol called “SHAKEN,” and when it’s implemented, it would add a level of authentication to calls, potentially crippling robocallers using false numbers.

A US Telecom spokesperson told Yahoo Finance the company was hoping to implement the program at the end of the year.

The strike force also detailed an enhanced trackback protocol that allows telecom companies to get better at weeding out robocallers by learning more about them and where the calls originate. With that information, the industry can suppress the VoIP gateways, the links from the computers to the phone networks, crippling robocallers.

The devices

Tech solutions don’t just come from the networks—they come from devices and operating systems as well. Apple’s (AAPLiPhone iOS operating system has an option to retroactively block a number that the user identifies as spam, the same way one could block a phone number from some crazy guy who won’t stop calling.

Apple’s response hasn’t been particularly pro-active, but the company has provided a way third-party apps can curb annoying robocalls. Apple introduced an extension for its phone app that lets third-party apps access the phone app’s inner-workings. With access to the device’s calls, these third-party apps can intercede should a spammer try to robocall.

On the Android side, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) phone apps for its Pixel, Nexus, and Android One phones have built in spam call protection that seem to work well. Other proprietary versions of Android may use their own systems outside of Android.

Google wouldn’t get into specifics of how it blocks spam robocallers or manages to flag suspicious incoming calls as “suspected spam caller.” But the company did note that feedback reports play a role in the process – meaning you should flag any bad calls.

What you can do now

There isn’t too much you can do except wait and hope for the industry’s projects to succeed, unless you want to buy one of the third-party apps that blocks robocalls. (CTIA, an industry group, has a good lists for Android and iOS). But Kopek did say that it is still worthwhile to add your number to the Do Not Call list even if you think it’s not doing anything.

“Putting your number on the Do Not Call list still helps,” says Kopek. “Legit companies who telemarket do scrub your numbers for their list.” Every month, telemarketers are required to check the list for new additions, so if you add your name, you should get fewer calls.

Until it gets better, it’s nice to remember one thing: Though we are living in a deluge of robocalls, it could be worse. The phone companies are pretty good at blocking robotexting.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Got a tip? Send it to tips@yahoo-inc.com.

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