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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Google the term “robocall,” and you’ll find an FCC webpage that begins, “Unwanted calls – including illegal and spoofed robocalls – are the FCC’s top consumer complaint and our top consumer protection priority.” There is also a link to the FCC’s post on “Call blocking services,” that advises users to “Contact your phone company to learn more about the blocking and labeling solutions that may be available to protect you from unwanted and illegal calls.” It’s worth using whatever tools your phone company offers, but they may not block all unwanted calls.

Most robocalls are also against the law. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 and subsequent rulings by the FCC ban commercial entities from engaging in this annoying behavior. But, despite that, we’ve seen an increase in the number of these types of calls. In December 2021, the FCC reported, “The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a sharp spike in impersonation fraud, as scammers capitalize on confusion and concerns around shifts in the economy stemming from the pandemic. Incorporating new data from the Social Security Administration, reported costs have increased an alarming 85 percent year-over-year, with $2 billion in total losses between October 2020 and September 2021.”

I still get robocalls on my cellphone, but we got so many on our landline that we finally disconnected it. For some, that’s a hard decision, especially if they have no or unreliable cell phone service as is sometimes still the case. While not a huge deal, my adult son quipped that he now has to choose between calling mom or dad, because he can no longer just call the “house” to speak to whomever answers.

I haven’t lost any money as a result of a robocall, but they affect my productivity and peace of mind. Almost every day I get a call or two trying to sell me an extended automobile warranty, with the caller implying that they represent the company that built the car I drive. They don’t of course. Automakers don’t harass their customers with telemarketing calls. These are independent businesses, if you want to call them that, or downright scammers.

I don’t respond to any robocalls, but I have spoken with callers representing non-profits, politicians and, on rare occasions, businesses. But, even if I think they’re legitimate, I never buy anything or donate money over the phone. If I am interested, I’ll go to their website and make the transaction online or ask them for a callback number. If they’re a fraudster, they’ll hang up on you at that point. The same applies to calls that appear to come from debt collectors, the IRS or anyone else seeking money. After my sister died, I even got calls claiming to be from businesses that she supposedly owed money to. The only bills of hers that I paid were written notices from legitimate companies that I knew she had accounts with.

Don’t rely on caller ID

The caller ID that identifies who is calling, is often spoofed. I typically see calls that look like they’re coming from my own area code, but they could be coming from anywhere in the world. In a post about spoofing, the FCC advises people not to answer calls from unknown callers, but that isn’t always practical. I often do answer, thinking it could be a neighbor or perhaps my doctor’s office or just someone whose number I don’t recognize. Some people routinely answer calls from unknown numbers because they are running a business and want to speak with potential customers or clients. In my line of work, I get legitimate calls from radio and TV stations, seeking interviews. Some callers, including reporters and doctors calling from their personal phones, show up as “private” because they have a legitimate reason not to want to share their phone number.

At the end of 2021, the FCC published rules to enforce  the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act which mandates phone companies to implement technology called Stir/Shaken to avoid spoofing, but it hasn’t stopped the calls from coming.

Advice from FCC

Other advice from the FCC makes a lot of sense. “If you answer the phone and the caller – or a recording – asks you to hit a button to stop getting the calls, you should just hang up. Robocalls will typically suggest you press a key to speak to a representative or another key to be removed from their list. Experts recommend you avoid pressing any keys or saying anything because it confirms that they’ve reached a real human being which will result in even more robocalls. The same is true when it comes to being removed from spam emails, though legitimate email marketing companies will remove you from their lists if you click “unsubscribe” (which is almost always in tiny text  at the bottom of the message). I’ve used that unsubscribe link to successfully remove myself from most of the commercial and political lists I was on, but I only use it if the email is coming from a legitimate company or organization.

Do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with “Yes.” The reason you shouldn’t say “yes” to any question on a robocall is because a scammer can record you’re saying it to authorize charges over the phone. I strongly agree with the FCC’s advice to “Never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mother’s maiden names, passwords or other identifying information in response to unexpected calls or if you are at all suspicious.”

We need better enforcement

The Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 makes it illegal for anyone in the US to use false Caller ID information for a call with the intent to defraud or scam a called party, with a few exceptions like law enforcement or when authorized by a court. But this illegal practice still occurs with regularity. One possibility is that these calls are coming from out of the country, but it’s also likely that many are coming from within the U.S. I doubt whether federal law enforcement agencies have the resources to prioritize enforcement to the extent necessary, but I do think that phone companies should be required to do all they can to block these calls. Most phone companies do offer some blocking services, but — based on my experience and what I hear from others — they are not doing an adequate job.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

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