Why you should care

Because revenge on spam callers has never been funnier.

We all dread them, but they just keep coming — irritating, often deceptive spam and computerized autodialed calls (aka robocalls) — often several times a day. Sometimes it’s an unfamiliar number, and sometimes it’s “neighbor spoofing,” where the phone number displayed is similar to your own. However the spammers do it, for those of us on the receiving end of the line, it’s incredibly frustrating.

There are numerous apps that help screen and manage calls, but one is taking a decidedly cheeky approach: confusing the callers and wasting time by engaging them in bizarre conversations … with robots. With RoboKiller, you can even listen back to these entertaining exchanges with spammers. It’s a kind of sweet revenge, even if you have to pay for it.

Here’s how it works: RoboKiller determines whether or not an incoming call is spam. This is called audio fingerprinting — sort of like holding up a phone to identify what song is playing — and it works “to understand the patterns that the callers have,” says Ethan Garr, senior vice president of strategic growth at RoboKiller. Machine learning and user feedback powers an algorithm that makes the decision whether to allow a call or block it, and in real time, Garr adds.

The real fun begins when the call is identified as spam. First, it’s blocked; you won’t even know about it at the time. Next, it’s answered by one of the thousands of Answer Bots — users can choose from bots “that range from mildly annoying to downright hysterical” — whose only goal is to be as disruptive to the spammer as possible. This can include time-wasting conversational responses — such as a man who says he’s at the hospital having his first baby, or someone who has a gazelle trapped in their apartment — or noisy interludes like an extended coughing fit. In the end, victims “get a little revenge and get even,” Garr explains.

Ask anyone who’s received a call from scammers posing as the IRS, credit card companies, etc., and you’ll get the same response. “Yeah, it’s annoying,” says Leslie Dela Vega, OZY’s director of visuals, who was getting robocalls and spam calls as often as five to seven times a day before trying out RoboKiller. Since then, she says, “My phone is not ringing. It’s totally stopped.”

The app was created in 2014 by Garr and a team of others for the FTC’s “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back” competition. But the technology “was a little bit ahead of its time,” Garr explains, so the current version of RoboKiller is just shy of two years old. Since launching in 2017, the app has seen “tremendous growth,” he says. And while they don’t publish their user numbers, Garr points to the 203,000 ratings (with an average of 4.6 stars) on the App Store for context. In April alone, he says, RoboKiller wasted about 113,000 hours of spammers’ time.

Not-so-fun Facts:

  • Global spam calls grew 325 percent to 85 billion worldwide in 2018, according to Hiya’s first Global Robocall Radar Report.
  • This year, 45 percent of all calls made to mobile phones in the U.S. will be scam calls, according to projections by First Orion in the FCC’s Report on Robocalls.

The app, which works in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, comes with a seven-day free trial. After that, users can choose from an annual subscription ($29.99) or pay $3.99 a month. Compare this to Nomorobo ($1.99 per month), which also identifies and answers robocalls. Other apps like Hiya ($2.99 per month) partner with carriers and smartphone makers to provide caller profile solutions and spam protection, and YouMail compares numbers against a library of more than 100,000 “bad” numbers, and then answers them with a “‘This number not in service” greeting.

But RoboKiller lets subscribers get in on the fun by allowing them to create their own Answer Bots and even use celebrity bots — such as Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — to answer their unwanted calls. You can also listen back to (and share) conversations that Answer Bots have intercepted on your phone. Check the “Recents” tab under “Blocked & Recorded Calls.”

Fun aside, the app does not block all unwanted calls — typically at least 10 percent still get through. But there is a feature that allows users to flag calls that did not get blocked, and this information is fed back into the system. Also, some features could be more user-friendly. For example, Dela Vega says that it wasn’t easy at first to determine when the calls had been recorded. (She’s since figured it out and says she loves it.)

Robocalls are big business. There were 48 billion made in the U.S. in 2018 alone, according to YouMail’s National Robocall Index. Scammers make billions of these calls, Garr explains, and the majority of their costs are labor. Wasting the scammers’ time cuts into their margins, which will eventually “help to put them out of business.”

Still, he’s hopeful that technology can work to thwart unwanted calls, even going so far as to audio-fingerprint and capture the nuances of a human’s voice. That would enable the app to block that “specific person from spamming you,” Garr says. Imagine the possibilities.

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