Why you should care
Robocalls are rising sharply in the U.S., and there’s no disconnect in sight.
New York artist Jennifer May Reiland’s phone rings all the time. While that gives the impression that she’s a very popular lady, the constant calls she gets aren’t from real people: They’re robocalls or telemarketing algorithms trying to sell her something. While this is a daily annoyance for many, Jennifer’s relationship with robocallers goes even deeper. “I work at a bookstore and for a while, I guess robocallers were spoofing our number because we would get multiple calls each day from people demanding angrily, ‘Why did you just call me?’ and when I said we didn’t, they refused to believe me,” she says.
As strange as this situation was, it wasn’t the fact that a robocall agency had stolen her work’s phone number that surprised Reiland. It was the fact that all of these people had actually answered their phones. “It mainly just amazed me that people actually call back unknown numbers that called them!” she exclaimed. “I assume all unknown numbers are robocalls at this point.”
This is a familiar scenario for most phone-owning Americans. In 2018, about 26.3 billion robocalls were placed to cellphones and landlines — roughly seven calls per month per person. If that’s not enough to make you want to go off the grid, consider this:
The number of robocalls in the U.S. increased an estimated 41.3 percent from 2017-2018.
A separate Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimate guessed that 1,500 robocalls are received every second in the United States. In 2017, according to caller ID firm First Orion, 3.7 percent of calls were from scammers. In 2018, that number was 29.2 percent, and this year it’s estimated that almost half of all the calls we receive will be spam … though not all spam calls are robocalls, and vice versa. This year Florida authorities sent out hurricane warnings using robocalls, and doctors, officers and banks are just some of the businesses that use them. But many are scams — and if you think things are better abroad, think again: The caller ID company Hiya recently reported that it flagged 85 billion robocalls globally in 2018, an increase of a whopping 325 percent.
Telemarketers and telemarketing scams have been annoying Americans pretty much since the telephone was invented in 1876. In 1888, a wealthy trader installed a telephone line between his home and his office. One day, a sharp-dressed shyster by the name Thomas Jefferson Odell knocked on his door while the trader was at work and asked the butler if he could use the house phone. Once inside “Odell” called the trader and told him that he had bound and gagged his wife and demanded a $20,000 ransom. The trader delivered the cash to one of Odell’s accomplices and rushed home, only to find his wife unbound and entirely unaware of the scam.
In the century that followed, telemarketing became a thriving industry, reaching its peak in the 1980s and ’90s. But in 2003, people got so sick of their dinners getting interrupted by someone trying to sell them something that a nationwide Do Not Call Registry was created, with the FTC at the helm. And it worked. In just three months, 50 million American signed up and telemarketing groups could be fined up to $11,000 per call.
But robocalls are a different breed altogether. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when big companies like Ford and AT&T used telemarketing programs, the mere threat of prosecution that the Do Not Call Registry represented was enough to deter them. Today, many robocallers simply don’t care. Spoofing, or the process of disguising real phone numbers with ones with local area codes, gives them the ability to make anonymous calls from anywhere in the world. And the software they use to make the calls is extremely cheap, costing only a fraction of a penny per minute … and that’s just if the caller picks up. “The proliferation of robocalls has made it less expensive for telemarketers to reach potential customers and for fraudsters to reach potential victims,” explains Ian Barlow, the Do Not Call program coordinator at the Federal Trade Commission.
Several notorious scams are now making the robocall rounds. One is an automated message claiming to be from the Chinese embassy, demanding that the receiver turn over sensitive information like a credit card number in order to avoid being in trouble with the consulate. But the most notorious of all robocall frauds is the IRS scam. Here, victims receive a call from a fake IRS agent who aggressively tells the victim that they owe past taxes and fees that are due immediately. Often, the fraudster will tell the victim that if they do not pay immediately, a warrant will be issued for their arrest. In the first half of 2018, victims reported losses of $53 million to robocall scams like these.
So, what can be done to stop it? “Illegal robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing are massive problems facing American consumers and businesses.” says Will Wiquist, a spokesman for the FCC, who says the calls are “the FCC’s top consumer protection priority.” Some solutions that the FCC has launched are improved call-blocking rules for phone companies, more reliable call authentication technology and major fines against call spoofers. In 2018, the FCC fined a Florida man $120 million after he made more than 100 million robocalls during one three-month period in 2016. There are also several free robocall-blocking apps, such as Hiya, Robokiller and Truecaller, which use databases containing known scam numbers to filter incoming calls.
Some Americans are using a more drastic method: They’ve stopped answering their phones entirely. “I get a lot of robocalls, so I NEVER answer my phone unless I know the number,” says Reiland. “Anyone who actually knows me can just text me or leave a message if it’s important.”