'Do I Know You?' And Other Spam Phone Calls We Can't Get Rid Of | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Do I Know You?' And Other Spam Phone Calls We Can't Get Rid Of

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 6, 2019 10:17 am

The spam calls keep coming, offering you loans or threatening you with jail time for IRS violations. By some estimates, they make up at least a quarter of all calls in the United States.

And as the problem continues to grow, it creates a whole new set of related nuisances for people like Dakota Hill.

He estimates he gets hundreds of unwanted spam calls every month. But Hill says he also gets calls from people who think he's spamming them.

In addition to hundreds of unwanted spam calls every month, Dakota Hill says he fields calls from people who think he's spamming them.
Courtesy of Jade Hewitt

People call, asking: "Do I know you?" or "Why did you wake me up?"

In fact, Hill didn't place any of those calls. He figures his number is being "spoofed"; fraudsters use software to trick the caller ID system to make it appear as though calls are coming from his phone.

He explains this, over and over, to the people calling him.

There is an irony here. The cellphone has become our everything — our wallet, photo archive, computer and music library. But it's also becoming less appealing as a phone. Consumer Reports found that 70% of people no longer answer calls they don't recognize. Regulators and industry are combating junk calls. But at least so far, they haven't succeeded.

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone companies, itself has been targeted.

"We've seen recently scammers using our number, spoofing our number, to try to convince consumers that they're from the FCC and in some way get money out of them," says Patrick Webre, chief of the agency's consumer bureau.

He says spam calls are the No. 1 consumer complaint and a top priority for the agency. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has demanded that all U.S phone carriers install new technology to authenticate real calls and flag potential spam by the end of this year.

The battle against phone spam is so big that there's a sub-industry combating it.

At Hiya, a Seattle technology startup that's designing ways to block spam calls, U.S. calls are tracked on giant computer monitors. Jonathan Nelson, director of product management, says consumers are adapting — by not answering the phone and letting calls go to voicemail.

But spammers then devise clever new ways of bilking people. The latest example is the "one ring" scam, which emerged May 3. That day, Nelson's monitors turned a flurry of red.

"It was [an] explosion of calls," he says. "We'd never seen that level of volume before."

This scam involves robocallers hanging up after one ring, hoping to trick the victim into calling back on an expensive international toll line, mostly to West Africa.

Scams are easy to perpetrate and hard to stop, largely because technology allows calls to go out by the millions with the click of a button. Many scams prey on fear — of arrest or investigation by a government agency — and target immigrants, taxpayers, debtors or retirees.

And to be profitable, spammers need only a small fraction of recipients to fall for the scam. Scams cost Americans an estimated $10.5 billion a year, according to spam blocker Truecaller. But their success, Nelson says, comes at a high cost to consumers: "We're kind of seeing the death of the phone call."

Most cellphone carriers recognize they need to step up the fight.

Chris Oatway, associate general counsel for Verizon Wireless, calls the fight with spammers an "arms race" and says the company is investing more than ever in technologies to detect, identify and trace junk calls. "The key here is to restore trust in voice calls," he says.

But doing so is complicated, because telephone networks are so interconnected. If another wireless carrier doesn't flag a spam call, Verizon's network might not recognize it's a problem and let it go through. Oatway says that's just one way spammers might still succeed.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. Cellphones have made our lives easier for sure, but lately, when you pick up the phone, you are likely to hear something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This message is concerning your unsecured credit debt.

KING: These spam calls make up at least a quarter of all phone calls in the United States, but there is hope. The FCC is set to vote today on rules clarifying that phone companies can step in to block these unwanted calls. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has that story.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: By now, this is a familiar drill. The phone rings. It's not a familiar number. Is it important or yet another spam call? The problem of phone spam is so pervasive it's creating related nuisances for people like Dakota Hill. He says he gets 100 junk calls every month and also gets calls from people who think he's spamming them. They call saying...

DAKOTA HILL: Do I know you?

NOGUCHI: Or...

HILL: Why did you wake me up? And that was definitely an angry one.

NOGUCHI: In fact, Hill hadn't placed any of those calls. His number had been spoofed. That is, fraudsters used software to trick the caller ID system to make it appear as though calls were coming from Hill's phone. He explains this over and over to the people calling him, and not every caller is understanding. One woman chastised him.

HILL: She went on and on about how I was letting people use my phone and not controlling them (laughter).

NOGUCHI: There is an irony here. The cellphone has become our everything - our wallet, photo archives, computer and music library. But it's also becoming less useful as a phone. Consumer Reports found 70% of people no longer answer calls they don't recognize. Regulators and industry are combating junk calls but at least so far haven't succeeded. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone companies, had its own spam problem. Patrick Webre heads the agency's consumer bureau.

PATRICK WEBRE: We've seen recently scammers using our number, spoofing our number, to try to convince consumers that they're from the FCC and in some way get money out of them.

NOGUCHI: He says spam calls are the No. 1 consumer complaint and the agency's top priority. The FCC is demanding all U.S. phone carriers install technology to verify calls and flag potential spam. The deadline is the end of this year. Jonathan Nelson is on the front lines of this battle. Nelson is director of product management at Hiya, a Seattle technology startup that's designing ways to block spam. He tracks phone calls across the U.S. on giant computer monitors.

JONATHAN NELSON: You see this huge, vast area of green, which is good, all the good calls. But then there's this little red area that just bounces along, you know. It's the scammers.

NOGUCHI: Nelson says they devise clever, new ways of bilking people - the latest being the one-ring scam, which emerged May 3. That day, Nelson's monitors turned a flurry of red.

NELSON: It was explosion of calls. We'd never seen that level of volume before.

NOGUCHI: In this case, robo callers hang up after one ring, hoping to trick the victim into calling back on an expensive, international toll line, likely to West Africa. Scammers profit by taking a portion of the added fees. Many scams prey on fear of arrest or investigation by a government agency. Targets include immigrants, taxpayers, debtors or retirees. Scams cost Americans an estimated $10 billion a year. Their success, Nelson says, is making people skeptical about answering calls.

NELSON: We're kind of seeing the death of the phone call.

NOGUCHI: Most cellphone carriers recognize they need to step up. Chris Oatway is associate general counsel for Verizon Wireless. He says this year, the company's investing more than ever in technologies to detect, identify and trace junk calls.

CHRIS OATWAY: There is an arms race where they are looking to evolve to get around some of the protections we have in place.

NOGUCHI: I would say that the carriers are not winning that arms race.

OATWAY: I think that's true. The key here is to restore trust in voice calls.

NOGUCHI: Doing so, Oatway says, won't be easy because telephone networks are so interconnected. If another wireless carrier doesn't flag a spam call, Verizon's network might not recognize it's a problem. That's just one way he says spammers might still get through.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.