Helaine Olen: Why are we getting so many robocalls?
One morning about three weeks ago, at 5:45 a.m., the robocallers came for me. My cellphone rang. And rang. It hasn’t stopped.
The calls claim to come from all over the world. Sometimes they ring once, and stop. Sometimes twice. Rarely more than that. If I answer, I am sometimes told I owe money to the Internal Revenue Service but, more often, I hear gibberish, noises that sound vaguely French — but also sound like what a 10-year-old says when they are trying to pretend they are speaking French. Sometimes the calls are from Belarus. Or Slovenia. Or Uganda. Last week, an “unknown caller” got me twice while I was on another line talking to experts on robocalls. The next day, 14 calls by 10 a.m. — this time from Morocco.
A query on Facebook showed I wasn’t alone. “Minsk and Bosnia,” wrote a high school friend within seconds of my initial post. “Always Chinese ones for me,” a sometime editor chimed in. My younger son receives urgent calls from someone claiming to be the Social Security Administration — which he doesn’t take seriously, since he’s only 15.
When I told my hairdresser about all this, she told me about a client who received 45 robocalls between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. one day last week. YouMail, a voice-mail provider that also offers a blocking service, says Americans will receive somewhere between 60 billion and 75 billion such calls this year — double the amount we received just two years ago.
The Do Not Call Registry of blessed memory was supposed to solve such problems. And it did — for a time. But within less than 10 years of the law’s passage in 2003, technological advances that allowed scammers to place thousands upon thousands of calls from abroad for mere pennies (if that), rendering the list, well, not quite obsolete, but certainly less than helpful. Sure, the list still exists and the federal government issues fines to violators — the few they can catch, that is. But how do you fine someone who sets up shop in Burundi — if that’s even where they really set up shop? It’s possible that’s a spoofed number, too.
And there’s another problem, as well. It’s the calls that are legal — calls that are separate from spam calls. Debt collectors, in particular, like to place automated calls to people they believe owe them money. As Margot Saunders, a senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center puts it, “The industry really wants to make these calls.” When the Federal Communications Commission issued a rule during the Obama administration that put further restraints on its ability to do that, the ACA International — the lobbying arm of the debt-collection industry — took them to court, and got it overturned last year.
The Trump-era FCC doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to issue new regulations such as one demanding that telecommunications companies implement more robust anti-spoofing technology, which could help alleviate the spam calls. Instead, the FCC is simply asking the phone companies to help consumers out, pretty please.
This leaves consumers in a not-great position. (Saunders, for example, is tortured by one robocaller claiming her son skipped out on his student loan. He didn’t. Someone else with the same name apparently did, but the loan servicer in question refuses to back down.) It also brings me back to those calls from abroad. What are they? Good question! My own company, Verizon, told me when I asked about the problem, “We have not seen an uptick in calls from overseas,” which might explain why their robocall technology, for which I am paying $2.99 a month, isn’t helping much with my problem. (Verizon will also begin to offer a free version of the call-blocking technology by the end of this month.)
Experts they tell me these calls we’re receiving are a combination of different scams, and they might not all be coming from outside the country. There are out and out criminals, trying to scare you into thinking you owe the IRS money, or convince you that you’ve won some incredible prize as long as you wire money from your bank account right now!!!
My faux-French call? Alex Quilici, the chief executive of YouMail, tells me that these calls sound like something called the wangiri scam. They are designed to make us call the number back — and that number is a premium one, one that the caller will be charged a high cost for doing. Quilici says a lot of people habitually call back missed calls without thinking. “Belarus may not be good for you, but somebody who lives in Coney Island who is from there or Russia may go, ‘Oh, something’s up. I’m gonna call them,” he said, adding that the calls are so cheap to make, it doesn’t take many people falling for the trick for the phone miscreants to make money.
So now you are wondering — why can’t Congress step in? Surely, we can’t let something as ridiculous as robocalls defeat us. Well, there is legislation. In the House, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., reintroduced his Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, while in the Senate, there is a bipartisan bill from Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Thune, R-S.D. The bills are different in their particulars, but they both require phone companies to authenticate the origins of the calls they put through to us. That technology is in existence — at least in part.
But bills don’t just need to be introduced. They needs to be passed. In the meantime, phone companies need to be pressured to respond more urgently. As for ACA International, the debt-collection lobby, it says it has “serious problems” with Pallone’s bill and isn’t taking a position on the Senate initiative except to say that it has “urged the Senators to make distinctions between illegal actors and legitimate callers.”
So maybe something will happen. Or maybe not. But for now, my phone and yours will keep ringing. And ringing. And ringing …