The Rise of Robocalls and Cell Scams—and How to Stop Them

Xconomy National — 

[Updated 9:15 a.m., see below.] Jen King was in a hurry to get out the door of her Bay Area home on a recent morning, and she missed a call to her cell phone because of it. The phone number that called her, she later discovered, was startling.

“It was my home phone calling me, which was not possible,” says King, who recently finished a doctorate in information science and now works at Stanford University.

In 2018, however, it is possible for someone to use a spoofed version of King’s home number. “Neighbor spoofing” is a popular method of tricking your caller ID into thinking a call is coming from someone else through a couple of methods, from voice-over-Internet-protocol tech to software specifically designed for it. The goal is to make the victim think the caller is local to them—maybe an old friend or the doctor’s office—so he or she answers it. It is instead a scam, coming from a telemarketing firm or a robocaller that may be trying to record you saying the word “yes,” for example, so it can reuse your voice in some unauthorized way.

Robocalling has been around for years, but one company that develops software against it put out a report this week that alleges it’s going to get a lot worse. First Orion, a Little Rock, AR-based software maker that sells a service to help consumers and businesses combat scam calls, says it believes fake calls will jump to 44.6 percent of all incoming cell phone calls next year—up from 29.2 percent this year, and 3.7 percent in 2017. To make the prediction, the company says it analyzed billions of calls made by the millions of mobile users who use its call protection service.

Federal regulators have been trying to lock down the problem in recent years. The Federal Communications Commission says it receives 200,000 complaints annually about the estimated 2.4 billion robocalls people receive every month. The technology for making robocalls is cheap and scalable, according to the Federal Trade Commission. [Update: The FTC says one private group reported 4.2 billion robocalls last month. The 2.4 billion number is from 2016.] The consequences of the calls range from annoyance to more nefarious financial losses—say, by convincing someone to buy something or tricking them out of valuable personal information.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said stemming illegal robocalls is a top priority. The businesses and people running the operations are making plenty of money doing it—Pai told NPR some were pulling in $150,000 daily. The FCC issued a $120 million fine in May against the operator of a Miami, FL-based robocalling organization that allegedly spoofed around 96 million calls. The FTC, meanwhile, has brought more than 100 lawsuits against over 600 companies and individuals for robocalling, according to its website.

First Orion is, of course, promoting its own robocall-blocking software, which it sells to network operators, businesses, and consumers. Plenty of other apps offer similar services, often focused on consumers, such as New Jersey-based RoboKiller and Irvine, CA-based YouMail. Big companies like Verizon and AT&T offer related services, too. There’s a “digital footprint” for every phone number that can help people identify fake callers, Pai told NPR.

The best way to avoid any problems? Let the call go to voicemail or, if you do answer, try calling the business back at a number you know is legitimate, according to the FCC. Some robocalls are just trying to identify whether you’re a good target for more calling later.

In King’s case, the missed call from her home number sparked quite a bit of curiosity, in part because of her current role at Stanford. She’s the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

“The fact that somebody knows those two phone numbers belong to the same person…” King says. “What does that imply?”