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In recent years, an old menace has seen a great resurgence. A blight many of us hoped would be gone for good has gotten stronger and has risen again, haunting anyone with access to a telephone. Spam robocalls are utilizing technology and smarter tactic to pester people on a wider scale. It is a case study in how technology, created with the best intentions, can be morphed to serve a scammy, slimy business. What has changed? Why is the Do Not Call Registry no longer working? Let’s take a look at what has happened and what can be done about it.
Back in the 90s and early 2000s, a majority of phone calls were made over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). It was a lot more difficult to spoof where the call was coming from and a lot more expensive to make long distance phone calls. Even with these restraints, people were flooded with unsolicited phone calls, and scammers made money off unsuspecting users. To combat this, in 2003 the FTC opened the National Do Not Call Registry where people can register their phone number and avoid spam calls. For a time, this registry actually worked. People saw a reduction in spam calls and rejoiced. FTC regulations also barred automated dialers from calling cell phones without consent. So even as landlines became less popular, cell phones also had less spam calls. The FTC was able to track violators based on investigations and user reports and go after them accordingly. Things seemed to be going really well, however a new technology was about to make this problem a whole lot worse.
Voice over IP (VoIP)
Just as spam calls were winding down, a new technology was rising. Around 2004, Voice over IP (VoIP) started to become popular. This new technology allowed phone calls to happen over the internet. This meant companies could manage their phone lines using the same infrastructure as the internet. This significantly reduced costs and became more convenient to the end user. Call forwarding became simple and allowed a user to answer their office number on their mobile phone. Businesses could have one number to represent the whole company and could easily handle all internal transfers within their own network. Now most phone calls use some form of digital communication which has brought down the price of making phone calls considerably. These features are great, but unfortunately are also the reason for the rise of robocalls.
Around 2009, robocalls made a resurgence. The price of making a VoIP call is cheap. Obstacles like long distance calls are no longer an issue. It makes no difference where scammers are located, they can easily stay out of US jurisdiction and send us calls. They can spam cheaper calls and do it more rapidly than before using computers. They can also easily hide their identity. VoIP calls allow Caller ID spoofing. This is a great feature for when your mobile phone is pretending to be your work phone, but scammers use this same feature to pretend to be your neighbor. This is an out of the box feature for many VoIP services because in the U.S. it is legal when used without “intent to defraud.” There is no reliable way to trace back the original caller which makes these scammers more difficult to prosecute, and the Do Not Call Registry is rendered useless. Additionally, scammers have developed a psychological tactic to increase the amount of people that answer the phone to an unrecognized number. A lot of spam calls will have the same first 6 digits as your phone number. This is to make you think someone in your town that is legitimately trying to contact you. With all these advances in spam calls, what is being done to stop it?
Unfortunately, we do not have a clear solution to stop this menace. The FTC has sued hundreds of companies and individuals but there are still thousands more. They have also given phone companies more leeway to root out and stop suspected spammers. These actions will not be enough, and for the time being spam calls are here to stay.
Stopping the Spammers
What you can do is take a few steps to mitigate the calls. The first thing you can do is search for your phone number online. Scammers will create robot scripts will search the internet for new phone numbers to call. Removing any public instances of your phone number can help combat this. Do not answer calls from numbers you do not recognize. When you do answer that call, it tells the scammer that your phone number is active. If you answer that call and stay on the line long enough to talk to an actual person, that could signify that your number is active and you are somewhat willing to listen to their pitch. This can mean you get MORE spam calls. Therefore, do not stay on the line, even if you want to try and “prank” the scammer, chances are the joke is on you.
Spam calls will continue to annoy and pester us for the time being. We will have to wait for a new VoIP standard or technology to combat the problem. Until then, stay smart and hang up on “Heather from Account Services.”