Public Safety & Health

Robocalls: The new ‘wild west’


The evolution of digital scammers is a far cry from one of its earliest incarnates – the infamous ”Nigerian prince” con.
Over a decade ago, harrowed by the incessant, screeching pitches and beeps of AOL dial-up, you’d log in to your computer and find ”you’ve got mail” from a man claiming to be a descendant of royalty. He offers you a chunk of his ”great fortune”- but only if you fork over your bank account numbers for a ”seamless transference of funds.”
The Nigerian prince shtick hasn’t died out entirely, but it’s taken a backseat to the more sophisticated scams seen in 2019, particularly through illegal robocalls.
Now, on a daily basis, consumers are bombarded by automated phone call recordings prompting us to dial a callback number in order to clear that warrant that is out for your arrest, to claim your lottery prize, or to remedy your missed jury duty.
Scammers’ abilities to ”spoof” caller ID is a game-changer; they can generate phone numbers through computer systems so that any number can appear as the caller – even your own. The phone may display a caller ID, but the caller ID may be spoofed or blocked. The spoofed phone numbers will often mimic a local number, making it more likely you’ll pick up.
Lane County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) Sergeant Carrie Carver said that scammers will go as far as extracting names of actual employees from the LCSO website to use in their scam pitches, putting legitimate agencies at a disadvantage.
Police are ”never going to call you and tell you we have a warrant out for your arrest … and LCSO does not accept gift cards,” Carver said. At the sheriff’s office, Carver will see people show up with cash cards in hand while still on the line with a scammer posing as an LCSO employee.
”With cell phones, people are picking up phones in places where they aren’t able to commit all their attention to their phone call,” like in a grocery store line, Carver said. ”It can be very jarring to hear you have a warrant out for your arrest. It makes you less likely to think to verify the caller because you just go into a panic state.”
Fraudsters prey on fear, banking on the supposed urgency of their message and boasting an easy resolution if you resolve the issue as quickly as possible, said Carver, noting that it is often well-educated people losing money on these kinds of scams. ”These scammers are extremely sophisticated and there is no shame in being a victim of these crimes,” Carver said.
Receiving ”robocalls” are a perennial top consumer complaint, according to a February 2019 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report on robocalls. Data shows that 232,000 complaints were reported in 2018.
According to YouMail, a third-party call blocking app approved by the FCC, in May 2019, there were 34.6 million robocalls reportedly made to Oregonians – that’s 1.1 million calls made per day to Oregonians; 46,500 calls made an hour; 12.9 calls made per second; and an average 8.5 calls a month to one person.
It’s changing the way we communicate. When the phone rings, consumers may not have enough information to tell whether or not the call is wanted, unwanted or illegal. Robocalls are so frequent, Carver said, that people have opted to turn off their phone ringer entirely, only allowing notifications for voicemails.
The callers basically are untraceable and currently, the only certain way to determine whether a call is wanted or unwanted is to let it go to voicemail, and hope the caller leaves a message.
Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley said that right now, ”robocalls are the wild west, and consumers are paying the price for this chaos … These calls are a nuisance at best, and at worst, downright predatory – threatening to put Americans in jail or cut off their Social Security if the recipient doesn’t hand over financial information.”
No one is immune. Merkley received a number of automated calls impersonating an official from the Social Security Administration, in which the caller claimed to have received suspicious information and threatened to ”suspend” his Social Security Number (SSN) immediately – unless he could confirm his SSN over the phone.
In 2018, 35,000 Americans reported this Social Security-specific call, which resulted in $10 million in losses. In the previous year, only 3,200 families were affected by this scam, losing only $210,000, highlighting the escalating severity and frequency of fraudulent automated call schemes.
Unless property had been lost, or if you have come in contact with a new type of scam, Carver said to not call the police to report the scam. Carver said the sheriff’s office does not have enough leads on these calls to dedicate enough time to investigative efforts. If everyone in Lane County called in to report their illegal robocalls, Carver said, the sheriff’s office would have to open its own call center dedicated just for taking those calls.
In April, Senator Merkley and Congresswoman Anna G. Eschoo (D-CA) introduced the Regulatory Oversight Barring Obnoxious (ROBO) Calls and Texts Act of 2019. This legislation would create a Robocall Division within the FCC Enforcement Bureau to reinforce regulations, and require the FCC to develop regulations to keep consumers safe from robocall schemes.
That division would serve as a line of communication between the federal government and the communications industry to coordinate efforts to combat robocalls on both sides and manage complaints.
The FCC would also be assigned new responsibilities to conduct research in the area of call-blocking technology and develop rules that would compel telecommunications providers to adopt technological standards to prevent robocalls.
”It’s time for a concerted effort to restore order and sanity to our cell phones,” Merkley said.



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