Death of a Sales Call: How Spammers and Spoofers Are Killing the Telephone

With 1.1 billion robocalls recorded in Pennsylvania so far this year, there are still ways for you to protect yourself from potential scammers.
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When the phone rings, what do you do? 

Once upon a time, the answer was quite simple: You pick it up. But amid a bombardment of robocalls and scammers, more and more Americans are opting to just let it ring — especially if the call is coming from an unknown number. 

Hiya, an industry leader in spam-call protection, put together the 2021 State of the Call report, an analytical behemoth of a document. The report combines the company’s global data from more than 150 billion calls processed in 2020 with third-party market research from more than 300 businesses and 2,000 consumers. 

The comprehensive report found that a staggering 94% of unidentified calls go unanswered. Hiya also says 85% of respondents in a survey indicated that they assume unknown calls are spam, and as a result, two-thirds say they have missed an important phone call because the caller was not identified by caller ID.

“Billions of spam and fraud calls are made every year, making people increasingly wary of unidentified calls,” reads the report.

Furthermore, Hiya’s State of the Call report found that millennials aged 25-34 were the age group most targeted by spammers, expanding the chasmic communications gap among a generation that already despises phone calls and tries their hardest to avoid them, even when they’re from friends or family.

This is so true, in fact, that limiting phone calls has become an unspoken rule of etiquette among young people, who find that unplanned calls are often invasive, time-consuming and presumptuous. And while older generations may scoff at the apparent standoffishness of a call declined or forwarded to voicemail, resistance to phone calls is a response to the expectation of hyperaccessibility that comes with being so online and so connected. 

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Younger millennials and Gen-Z were raised in the dayglow light of digital screens and came of age in a culture that all but requires smartphone ownership for everything from accessing QR-code menus in restaurants to paying utility bills. This drastically limits the amount of privacy one can expect to have and puts in place an expectation that young people are always within reach of their employers, schools or social circles. 

Studies show that most millennials have turned en masse to email or text, with 88% preferring those methods to phone calls and 52% saying that phone calls make them feel anxious. Beyond that, both emailing and texting allow time for the responder to formulate a reply and answer in their own time, whereas phone calls require an immediate response.

“With text, it’s not as intrusive. You can ignore it,” says Lauryn Halahurich, 27, of Butler, who says they have received more than 20 unsolicited calls since July and rarely answer the phone. “I honestly have my phone on silent most of the time because I get enough [spam calls] that I just don’t want to deal with it,” they add.

Roughly 40% of all phone calls in 2019 were spam calls, according to First Orion, a PrivacyStar service that analyzed more than 40 billion calls made to customers in the first half of 2019; they also commissioned a blind study of 5,000 mobile phone subscribers in the United States who had answered their phones and spoken to scam callers directly. And while the volume of spam calls in 2020 remained roughly the same as the previous year, scammers have honed their craft; the number of people who fell victim to a phone scam in 2020 was 270% higher than in 2019. So far in 2021, about 1.1 billion robocalls were placed to residents of Pennsylvania alone, averaging about 69 calls per person.

Neil Runge, 22, recently moved from Pittsburgh to Nebraska. When he changed his phone number after relocating, he specifically requested one that nobody had had before in an attempt to thwart spam callers. That cut the number of unsolicited calls from five or six a day to two per week. (There have been 124.8 million robocalls placed this year in Nebraska, with an average of 73 per person.)

Runge, who often expects calls from work or family members whose numbers he may not have saved, says that the spam calls stress him out. 

“I never know if it’s something I need to pick up or not,” he says.

Although Runge sometimes answers the calls if he’s bored at home, he’s most likely to let it go to voicemail. 

“I’d rather call a person back than be stuck with a telemarketer or spam caller,” he adds.

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Similarly, Halahurich says they specify in their voicemail greeting that if an unknown caller doesn’t leave a message, they aren’t likely to call them back under the assumption that the caller was a scammer or a bot.

Even George Slover, Washington, D.C.-based senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports, says he rarely answers his phone, opting to let it go to voicemail rather than risk an encounter with a scammer or salesperson.

“I figure if it’s somebody that I know and that I want to talk to, or that I don’t know and want to talk to, [they’re] going to leave a message and then I can call them back,” he says.

Slover, who has three decades of federal government policy experience, explains that these nuisance callers use a machine called an autodialer, which either randomly generates numbers or works off a list it has been provided with. If you’ve ever given your phone number as part of a sign-up process for a rewards card at the mall, your digits might appear in one of these autodialers’ records, too.

“The spam calls are usually random,” he says. “But the others, where they’re seeking to sell something to you, can come from the lists like we’re talking about.” 

It may seem shocking to think that it’s legal for the merchants we chose to trust to turn around and sell our personal information. Even though there is legislation in place to prevent this from happening, sellers are finding loopholes.

“There are two laws now — federal laws — that address this. One of them is called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and that’s been around for about 30 years,” Slover says. “It requires that, for a robocall or a call using an autodialer to be made to a consumer, the consumer has to have given prior consent to be called. There’s been a lot of skirmishing since that time over what consent actually means.”

Sometimes, consumers may go to sign up for certain products or services and unwittingly sign away their consent.

“There have been situations in which a consumer signs up for something and as part of the sign-up, it’s, ‘Oh, we’d like to contact you from time to time with interesting information about the service that you are subscribing to, is that okay?’ Or they say, ‘We’re going to be doing this. Please let us know if that is not okay. We’ll assume it’s okay unless you tell us it’s not,’” Slover says. “… There are situations in which the consumer’s ‘consent’ has resulted in essentially giving consent to a list of hundreds of callers … So it becomes a bottomless pit.” 

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Telemarketing, broadly, is the term for legitimate sales endeavors in which the seller reaches out to prospective clients by telephone. The practice has been widely criticized for being irksome and invasive, as the calls “reach into the most intimate spaces and moments of our lives,” write Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres and attorney Matthew Funk in a 2003 essay. The calls are almost universally regarded as a nuisance, and most consumers even find them to be just as bothersome as the potentially harmful spam calls.

In such a deeply commercialized culture where ads are everywhere and sales pitches seem to be the new hello — Gmail even has a separate “promotions” tab to filter out emails seeking to sell things — telemarketing calls can be icing on the cake.

“I think [telemarketing] can flood a person’s phone with notifications and unnecessary phone calls that could be better used for something else,” Runge says. “Especially for people who don’t have unlimited phone plans. Time spent talking to a telemarketer could take away from something more important.”

It was a sentiment shared by Halahurich, whose previous phone plan did not include unlimited talk time.

“I just switched to a phone that’s unlimited, but before I used a service called Ting, and it was pay-what-you-use. So if I would answer all those [unsolicited] phone calls, that’s money out of my pocket for something that I do not want to get,” they say. “I’m just sick of being sold to through communications channels that I didn’t sign up for. It would be nice if that would stop.”

The biggest problem with telemarketing, though, is that it has opened the door for scammers to impersonate legitimate companies or agencies.

“It can be very deceiving. It can be, ‘This is your bank calling, we’ve got this charge on your account of $630, just calling to confirm that you made that charge because we thought you might not’ve,’” Slover says. 

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He explains that consumers could be tricked into thinking they have to confirm their information — including account numbers, passwords, dates of birth or Social Security numbers — in order to speak with their bank about the alleged unauthorized charge.

“Once you’ve been hooked into that, it’s too easy for too many people to be lulled into giving information over the phone that they shouldn’t,” Slover says.

Scammers have even capitalized off of the COVID-19 pandemic, with calls urging people to pay for vaccines, offering a cure or bogus tests or attempting to access insurance information. 

“More people were at home to answer their phones, and scammers used the pandemic as cover for their fraud,” reads another report by First Orion. “Out of all the scam calls that succeeded in getting personal information, 17% used the COVID-19 pandemic to get in the door. The next most frequent cover story was fake banks at 12%, followed by family threats (10%), offering a prize or money (9%), and student loan scams (9%). 

“The pandemic also showed up in charity fraud. When scammers used fake charities as bait to scam people, 44% of them said they were collecting money for pandemic relief.”

In many cases, Slover says it isn’t even another human being on the other end of the call; so far in 2021, 30.7 billion robocalls have been placed nationwide, equaling roughly 93.4 calls per person.

Another type of phone scam is called spoofing — the act of tricking the caller ID system into identifying the call as coming from some other place. It might display as a local area code when the call is really coming from another state or even overseas, or the number may be almost identical to the consumer’s number, tricking them into thinking it’s a neighbor calling.

“One of [the dangers] is that it’s sometimes very hard to know who it is who’s actually calling you,” Slover says.

Slover added that sometimes, the spoofers impersonate agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the local police or another legitimate company asking you to confirm your credit card number, date of birth and Social Security number for their records so they can “make sure they have it right.”

Just like with telemarketing, it’s relatively inexpensive for scammers to place calls this way, and so they can still see a handsome turnaround in profit, even if they only manage to fool a small number of people into providing them with their credit card numbers or sending them gift cards.

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“More and more enterprising sellers and spammers have recognized how cheap it is to just flood the phone lines with these calls. They’re virtually cost-free to make them, and you can make hundreds, or thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of them at a time,” Slover says. “If you get even 100th of 1% of the people that you called taking you up on your offer, then it’s very profitable.” 

Truecaller, a crowd-sourced call and SMS blocking app with close to 280 million users globally, found that Americans lost nearly $19.7 billion from phone scams in 2020 — more than double the amount lost in 2019 — and that 56 million U.S. residents lost money from a phone scam in 2020. This is an increase of 30% from the previous year.

There are steps consumers can take to keep themselves safe, even if the steps fall short of stopping the calls altogether.

“[Consumers] are not going to mitigate the number of calls they receive, but they can mitigate the damage,” Slover says.

Slover recommends that folks who receive a call alerting them that there’s been a problem with their account should call their bank or credit card company directly. That way, they can alleviate any doubt that their account is safe and avoid the potential risk of giving out their info to a bad actor. 

Another possible mitigation method is adding your number to The National Do Not Call Registry, which the FTC opened in 2003 as part of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. While it’s moderately effective at preventing legitimate telemarketers from reaching numbers listed in the database, it does little to protect against illegal spam or spoof calls. 

Some phone providers have taken matters into their own hands.

“Google Pixel phones have a program that screens phone calls, so if I’m really expecting a call, I’ll use that as a service to see who’s calling me,” Runge says. 

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RoboKiller, too, is an app that “blocks over 1.1 million telemarketers and robocalls from ringing, even if they are spoofing or changing their numbers,” according to its website, and Hiya claims it “stops spammers, blocks fraudsters, and enables businesses to connect with their customers again.” 

The FTC also has links on its website to a comprehensive list of apps and tools to help block, decline or screen incoming calls.

Perhaps most significantly, every major voice provider in the U.S., including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and cable provider Comcast, implemented a technology called Stir/Shaken on June 30. According to a CNET article from June, “stir” stands for “secure telephone identity revisited,” and “shaken” for “signature-based handling of asserted information using tokens.” The tech is designed to noticeably decrease the amount of spoof calls phone owners are receiving and is the product of a second law passed in 2019 — the TRACED Act; TRACED is an acronym for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence.

“Essentially, [Stir/Shaken] is technology that enables the telephone companies to authenticate or to ascertain whether the number that is being shown as the number that’s being called from is the number that is actually being used for the call,” Slover says. “That law is still being implemented and there have been, as there always are, some kinks that have to be worked out … [but] I think it’s going to make a difference in that subset of calls.” 

It’s a technology that phone companies are eager to use.

“[Phone companies] would love to cut down on the number of unwanted robocalls,” Slover says. “It’s not something that is really a source of income for them, and they recognize that it’s making the telephone less useful of a piece of equipment if you can’t rely on the person who’s calling to be somebody you want to be calling you.” 

Categories: The 412