Why your mobile phone is under siege and what you can do about it


Kristie Karkanen cringes whenever a call comes in from an unfamiliar number. Which con artist or telemarketer will it be this time — a phony IRS agent demanding payment for back taxes, someone babbling threats in Mandarin or a guy offering a “free’’ resort vacation?

It’s no wonder the Fremont resident is leery of picking up the phone. In May alone, swindlers and legitimate businesses bombarded Americans with a record 130 million intrusive automated messages — per day — according to YouMail, a robocall blocking service that collects and analyzes data. That’s 12.5 calls per person per month, though many people put up with far more unwanted calls.

“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t answer the phone anymore,’’ Karkanen said, adding that the barrage has made her wary even of legitimate callers. When the FBI phoned her back last year after she reported alleged government fraud, “I didn’t believe it was them.’’

Kristie Karkanen of Fremont has quit answering her cell phone to avoid the barrage of robocalls. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The explosion in robocalls is driven by technological advances that allow anyone using an Internet-powered phone system to make virtually untraceable calls from anywhere in the world for a penny or less apiece.

In one case, a single operation based in a Miami apartment with links to a Mexican call center was able to reach nearly 97 million people during a three-month period ending in 2016 before the federal government shut it down and fined the owner a record $120 million. On top of defrauding people by claiming to represent major companies such as TripAdvisor and Marriott, the operation disrupted a medical-paging service’s emergency communications by inundating it with calls.

It is illegal under federal law to use automated telephone dialing systems and/or pre-recorded messages for sales calls without written or electronic consent from recipients — regardless of whether there is a scam involved. (Some pre-recorded informational messages, including appointment reminders, flight cancellations and charitable solicitations are legal; political calls without prior consent are legal only to landlines.)

In an effort to combat the flood of robocalls, government agencies have sued and won judgments totaling more than $1.5 billion since the Do Not Call Registry was established 15 years ago, held technology contests to spur the development of call-blocking apps, and made it easier for members of the public to file lawsuits, including class-action litigation.

But robocallers are playing a game of cat and mouse that no agency so far has been able to slow down. About 4.5 million complaints poured in to authorities last year, nearly a third more than the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the Do Not Call Registry.

VIDEO: Are any of these robocalls familiar? See what happens when you call the robocaller back. 

And consumer advocates fear the situation may soon get worse, depending on how the Federal Communications Commission reacts in the coming months to a recent court ruling striking down  Obama-era regulations intended to curb the calls. The most significant issue is what qualifies as a computerized auto-dialing device.

If the FCC sides with the calling industry by defining auto-dialers so narrowly that the ban doesn’t apply to many devices being used today, “the consequence will be a tsunami of unwanted and unstoppable calls to our cell phones,’’ said Margot Saunders, chief counsel for the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, one of the leaders of a coalition of more than 40 consumer and legal aid groups that support tough robocall regulations. “We’re very afraid of what this commission will do.’’

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San Jose network engineer Daniel Safradin said he is already interrupted day and night by robocalls — even when he and his wife are “being intimate.’’

Worse yet is when he forgets to turn off the sound on his phone before going to bed and is awakened in the middle of the night by a disembodied voice peddling “deals’’ like a “free’’ cruise.

“My blood just boils,’’ said Safradin, who even got a call from an unrecognizable number that he dared not answer while our photographer was there to take his picture.

Daniel Safradin, a network engineer in San Jose, says he gets at least 15 robocalls a day. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Toni Whyte, a digital marketer who works out of her home in Livermore, used to pick up calls that looked local before learning that many robocallers use fake caller ID to trick people into answering. Now, she lets most calls ring into voicemail, but greatly resents the time it takes to check those messages, about five a day from robocallers.

To add insult to injury, even letting it ring to voicemail can backfire. Your message can confirm the line is active — and can be sold as a “lead’’ to another robocaller.

“I keep blocking the calls and of course they keep popping up again using a different number,’’ Whyte said. “It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole.’’

Daniel Safradin’s phone showing phone numbers that he suspects are robocalls. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Robocalls are so ubiquitous that my editor couldn’t get through reading this story without getting a call from a robotic fake IRS agent threatening: “If I don’t hear a call from you, we will have to issue an arrest warrant under your name and get you arrested.”


A high percentage are scams. In May, they made up 43 percent of the 246 million calls made by the top 20 robocallers, according to YouMail.

Most of the other calls came from debt collectors. About a third of American consumers have accounts in collection, according to the Urban Institute.

In hopes of avoiding robocalls of all kinds, nearly 230 million consumers currently list their landline and cell phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry. The list was intended to stop legal marketers — originally on landlines and now also on cell phones — but has had limited success in reducing the flood of robocalls, for two primary reasons.

It turns out that the registry offers no protection if you have consented to being contacted by particular companies. Many of us do so unwittingly by checking a notification box or agreeing to a business’ terms and conditions without reading the fine print.

Consumers can block those robocalls by calling the companies and revoking permission, though it doesn’t always work. The FCC plans to take a second look at its consent-revocation procedures when it takes up the auto-dialer issue.

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Another reason the Do Not Call Registry hasn’t been able to stem the tide of robocalls is that scam artists operate entirely outside the rule of law.

They boldly prey on the elderly and other vulnerable groups like immigrants and small businesses by impersonating a variety of agencies, from the IRS to student-loan collectors. In the latest shakedown, immigrants in New York city reported being swindled out of millions of dollars by Mandarin-speaking scammers pretending to be from the Chinese consulate and demanding money to protect victims’ U.S. legal status.

Closer to home, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office just issued a warning to Bay Area residents, urging them to ignore calls from hucksters who claim to represent prosecutors and demand an immediate cash payment on a payday loan. The DA’s office never makes such demands, prosecutor Teresa Drenick said.

Altogether Americans lost an estimated $9.5 billion to such phone scams last year, according to one study.

Will Butler, a trash hauler in the Southern California community of Hacienda Heights, said he was bamboozled recently into giving up his Social Security number after hearing a robocall spiel and then pressing 1 to talk to a live person, who accused him of reneging on a high-interest payday loan.

“I was trying to prove my innocence, to show it wasn’t me,’’ he said. “I didn’t realize they could steal my identity.’’

Some federal lawmakers are trying to slow the flow. Sponsored by Bay Area Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), the Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone Calls bill, or HANGUP Act, aims to protect students, homeowners, veterans and farmers with federal loans from unwanted robocalls and texts by requiring government contractors to obtain consent first.

 

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, is sponsoring the HANGUP Act, one of many legislative attempts to stop the scourge of excessive telemarketing and robocalls . (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group) 

The Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones bill, or ROBOCOP Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), would require phone companies to provide customers with new free tools to block robocalls.

But even though most Americans regardless of their political affiliation are perturbed by the calls, the legislation is expected to face an uphill battle getting through Congress. Some of the new laws would stiffen the penalties on violators, including big banks that rely on automated calls to collect debts and wield clout in Washington.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform is already angry that the FCC has made it easier and more lucrative to sue businesses while scammers often go unchecked. Large settlements include Capital One, which agreed in 2015 to pay $75 million after plaintiffs alleged that it and three collection companies made robocalls to collect debts, and JP Morgan Chase in 2016 for $34 million, regarding updates or debt collection. Consumer groups counter that without those suits, the robocall problem would be even worse.

Turning to technology may be the best solution — including for consumers with a taste for revenge. As is stands now, most call-blocking apps intercept numbers that appear on blacklists, sending them to voicemail or preventing them from getting through unless the caller enters a certain number, which the auto-dialers can’t do, according to Consumer Reports’ latest list of ways to stop the bothersome calls. Many robocallers evade the screening by constantly switching fake caller IDs; to address that, the telecom industry is working on a call-verification system that would assign a certificate of authentication to every telephone.

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For payback, there are a couple of options. The call-blocking service called Robokiller uses robots of its own to answer the calls. The winner of the FTC’s 2015 contest, “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back,’’ the app answers the robocall and presses 1 to get through to a human operator. Then it plays a  pre-recorded message created either by the company or its customers to waste the operator’s time. The results are often hilarious, including a gag “answer bot’’ that strings the operator along by asking for her honest opinion about his off-key singing voice and ends with him saying he has to go gargle some eggs.

Some people would rather do it themselves. San Jose lawyer Angela Storey dealt handily with a robocall once she reached an operator, who told her that federal marshals were on their way to her house because of an IRS debt that could put her in federal prison for two years.

“I told him I would meet them outside, and did I need to bring my own toothbrush,’’ Storey said. “He seemed confused, so I told him that two years in a federal minimum security prison sounded like a vacation compared to the screaming, fighting kids in the background. Then he called me a few choice names and hung up.’’


WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT ROBOCALLS

Report them to the feds: Share the callers’ numbers with the Federal Communication Commission — (888) 225-5322, Ext. 4 — and/or the Federal Trade Commission. Although robocalls often get through even if you’ve listed your number on the Do Not Call Registry, the FTC still encourages people to file complaints about violators. The agency makes the numbers available on a daily basis to telemarketers and call-blocking apps, and they are also used to assess the scope of the robocall problem, identify trends and aid in investigations.

Share information online about annoying calls and suspected scams: Sites such as https://800notes.com/ allow you to share warnings with others; we reported an IRS scam call from 916-545-7185, for instance, and found nine other people also complained. The reports may help carriers and call-blocking apps screen calls.

Should you answer a robocall or let it ring to voicemail? Some say never answer; others insist your voicemail message confirms the line is active and may be sold as a lead. There’s a consensus on the value of blocking unwanted calls, including call-blocking devices, mobile apps, cloud-based services, and services provided by your phone carrier.

Sources:  Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission.



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