We’ve had a rough year here in many ways here in Central Pennsylvania. The weather seemingly is either bringing us deluges of rain or 95 degree days. I-83 has seemingly turned into one giant construction zone with very little progress being done. But the one thing that many people have found the most annoying is the number of robocalls that we have all been receiving this year. What’s been up with that?

To answer or not to answer?

One major benefit of a cell phone is that we can see the number of the person calling us. We know the area code and the number which gives us an idea if we should answer the call or not. After all if you are not expecting a call or know anyone in Spokane, Washington why would you be receiving a call from there. Most people will not answer a number that they do not recognize while some people have to answer every call. This year has pushed many to the limits with the number of robocalls that have been going around.

Robocalls come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are trying to make quick sales of products you don’t need. Some are trying to scam you, particularly in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Florence, or by posing as law enforcement or the IRS looking to scare you into paying. Some of these can be quite humorous when they actually call law enforcement but few of us have that luxury of knowing that the local sheriff is our boss and knowing that they are not coming for us. Others are just trying to be annoying and see which phone numbers are active. Some are even legitimate. It’s been a scourge that Americans are fed up with.

It’s easy to start robocalling people

Starting your own call center has never been easier. VoIP technology allows anyone with a good Internet connection to set up a system that can auto-dial numbers and even spoof caller IDs. Heck, if Homer Simpson can do it, you can too. That last part has been what has made everyone so mad since the technology is cheap and easy to acquire. Blocks of numbers are easy to purchase and the is no way to verify the information of the person registering the numbers. Most people do not answer a call coming from outside of the area code unless they are expecting it but spoofing technology has allowed people to manipulate the caller ID information so that a call appears to be local. Some people have even received a call from themselves.

In 2017 over 30 billion robocalls were made that scammed Americans out of over 350 million dollars. 2018 has been even worse and in 2019 if left unchecked nearly half of all calls placed will be robocalls. In August of 2018 over 4.2 billion robocalls were made with the average phone number receiving almost 8 in that timeframe. Most of these robocalls are illegal (though spoofing is technically not) but the trick is being able to catch the people responsible.

Make them stop!

Complaints to the FTC have exploded so the powers that be are well aware of this. It is their number one complaint, even. Every so often someone gets busted for this and faces jail time and millions of dollars in fines but with many of these schemes coming from outside of the US it is hard to track them down (though it can be done). For now the best advice that can be given is to not answer the calls and if you do to never say anything. Once a scammer knows a number is active they can sell that information to other scammers. There are also apps available that can help detect scam calls but that doesn’t seem like enough.

What is being done

Work is actually being done. Phone providers, who are necessary in this scam as the calls still need to access a phone network, are working on a verification system that will alert users if the caller ID seems to be spoofed. The best comparison that can be made is that it is an email spam filter for phone calls. Verizon intends to introduce this later in the year with other carriers to follow.

Last year the FCC allowed phone carriers to block calls from area codes that do not exist or from phone numbers that are not assigned to anyone. A Do Not Originate list was created and has been effective in stopping IRS scam calls since the IRS hotline number was added to the list. This is not the same as the Do Not Call List and the government recommends that you add your number to that list as well.

Even by not answering the phone a robocaller can make money

Blocking numbers will only do so much as you may very well get another call about the same thing the next day. Some providers are identifying these calls and provide scam blocking services, some for free some for a price. The fix starts with them and many consumers do not believe they are doing enough and with good reason. When scammers place a call the information of the call is added to a database. Each time that number is displayed the recipient’s provider pays a small fees for that information and some of that can go back to the caller. While the amount paid out may only be a fraction of a penny after making millions of calls that total can add up. Even if you do not answer the call the scammer is potentially making money.

There is no fix-all solution

The problem is for lawmakers is that not every robocall made is illegal. Numerous services like doctor’s offices or pharmacies use them as a way to remind patients of appointments or that something is ready to be picked up. Our telecommunications systems are designed to make and receive calls and not to determine if a call is good or bad. To truly stop this our telecommunications system will need a major overhaul. That will not come easy nor will it come cheap.

But you know what the funny thing is? As I was writing this I got a robocall. It seemed to be in Chinese and left a voicemail.

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