Robocalls can be relentless: Is your car warranty about to expire? Can we make you a great offer to buy your house? Have you seen these irregularities with your Amazon account? Are you aware your utilities are about to be shut off?
In 2021 alone, phones in the U.S. were pummeled by more than 50 billion robocalls, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking and analysis company. That’s more than 150 calls for every person in the country. In July, that number was 3.8 billion.
The result? Many of us just don’t answer our phones unless we recognize the number.
The damage done can have serious consequences, intended and not. In addition to fraudulent marketing, ignoring unknown numbers could prove dangerous – take the hiker lost on a mountain in Colorado who was reported to have ignored repeated telephone calls from Lake County Search and Rescue because they didn’t recognize the number. Consequently, the hiker didn’t even know anyone was searching. It’s a behavior common to most of us. A 2019 Consumer Reports survey found that 70% of Americans don’t answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number.
In general, unless a company has your written permission, it is against the law to contact you via robocall, especially if the caller is trying to sell something. There are some exceptions. According to the Federal Trade Commission, these types of robocalls are permitted by law:
To curb robocalls, the government has passed laws to hold phone carriers accountable, and created registries for people who don't want to be contacted. State prosecutors are also suing and prosecuting perpetrators, who still manage to scam enough people to make the endeavor lucrative enough to risk hefty fines.
“Our lives are plagued by robocalls like a swarm of flies,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost in July when his office sued participants in a scheme it said was responsible for making billions of calls, as many as 77 million a day. “It’s time to get out the fly swatter.”
The Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau recently warned voice service providers that have apparently transmitted illegal robocalls on their networks to stop facilitating such efforts or the FCC would authorize network providers to block all their traffic,
The FCC last year fined telemarketers in Texas a record $225 million for making approximately 1 billion robocalls, many of them illegally spoofed to show false incoming numbers, to sell short-term, limited-duration health insurance plans. The FCC said the telemarketers falsely claimed to offer health insurance plans from well-known health insurance companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna.
Might these efforts be making a dent? Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support with AARP, said it’s hard to tell. She said any government action to lessen the threat is welcome and helpful. But she added it’s clear the robocall scams have not stopped.
“Criminals don’t care about the law,” she said. “They’ll find a way to continue their practices to steal from people. Robocalls are cheap to the criminals; robocalls are effective to the criminals. They'll continue to find a way.”
On a recent morning, for example, AARP heard from someone who had received a robocall claiming that his electricity was going to be turned off in 30 minutes. He called back and was told their system was down, and that he would have to use money transfer service Zelle to pay $450. He ended up sending $299.75 as a minimum payment.
That same morning, a woman contacted AARP to report receiving a large number of robocalls. One of the callers, she said, had all her information. It turned out, the caller, which claimed to be from Amazon and claimed that she had a charge on her account, already knew her Social Security number, and who she banks with as well as some contact information.
YouMail CEO Alex Quilici said the Ohio lawsuit may have had an effect. “It’s too early to tell if overall robocall volume has been decreased by the Ohio AG action,” Quilici said. “However, the volume of car warranty calls has dropped materially since that action.” The calls coming from the operation that was the subject of the suit, he added, “have gone to zero.” It’s not clear yet whether “other calling campaigns that have been increasing will offset this,” he added. “There are so many other robocall campaigns at scale going on all the time.”
At the same time, spam texts are increasing, according to Robokiller, another company that analyzes and helps to block them. In July alone, there were more than 12 billion spam texts sent in the U.S., nearly 44 for each resident.
Let’s look at the car warranty scams. In short, the scammers are looking to sell you non-existent or fairly useless car warranties that they lead you to believe are extensions of the original warranty on your vehicle. While few people take the bait, those who do typically don’t realize they’ve been had until months or years later when they try to use their worthless warranties, Nofziger said.
The scammers may even know the make and model of your car, according to Nofziger, because this information is easily purchased. And while this is a notorious robocall scam, Nofziger noted this one is also committed using mail solicitation.
The lawsuit by the Ohio attorney general described a “complex robocall lead generation scheme designed to conceal both who is responsible for the generation of hundreds of millions of robocalls, as well as how money flows between defendants.”
The lawsuit says the scammers disregarded consumers’ enrollment in the National Do Not Call Registry, ignored requests to stop calling and regularly changed their caller ID numbers to evade call blocking efforts.
Among the phone numbers the robocallers spoofed were some assigned to a federal court in Ohio. The lawsuit says they also engaged in “neighbor spoofing,” a way to increase the odds that a call will be answered by using caller ID numbers with the same area code or similar three-digit exchange of the people being called.
The lawsuit says the operation provided leads to marketers of vehicle service contracts that were deceptively marketed as car warranties. The marketers of the vehicle service contracts paid millions to the companies that generated the leads through relentless robocalls.
Quilici offered the following advice:
You can also forward suspicious text messages to 7726 (or SPAM). This free text exchange with your wireless provider will report the number, and you will receive a response thanking you for reporting it.
In addition, the FCC offers the following advice:
The FCC has extensive information on stopping robocalls through apps and other measures offered by carriers, phone makers and third parties.
The agency says to contact your phone company about the solutions they may offer to unwanted and illegal calls. Your cell phone may also have built-in features in its settings that block unwanted calls from specific numbers.
Here are links offered by the FCC to some of the call blocking and labeling tools available:
Wireless Device Solutions
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