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New technology aims to turn the tide on robocall epidemic

By Sloan Schrage and Lori Prichard, KSL TV | Posted - Nov 16th, 2018 @ 9:45am


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OGDEN — If your phone is ringing morning, noon and night with maddening robocalls, you are far from alone.

In October, Americans received over 5.1 billion automated phone calls, according to the YouMail Robocall Index. Utahns received 37 million of those calls.

Feeling the frustration

“I get calls all through the day,” said Cindy Sutherland-Young. “Anywhere from five to 15, 20 a day. I have even had some in the middle of the night.”

Sutherland-Young owns I Spy Vintage, an antique store in Ogden. She says she is beyond frustrated by those constant calls. As much as she would love to ignore calls from unknown numbers, for her, it’s not an option. Every call could be a customer.

“I may have a purchase on the phone or shipping,” she explained. “Or, just asking if I’m open. I want them to know ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Sutherland-Young said she has listed her number on the National Do Not Call Registry, but the calls keep coming. And opting out of more calls by following a robocall’s prompts has never worked for her.

“If I press the prompt to be taken off the call list, they call from another number,” she said. “It is the exact same recording. It’s the same voice, same exact wording on each call.”

Of the 5.1 billion robocalls placed last month, YouMail estimates 42 percent of them were scams. By next year, nearly half of all mobile calls will come from scammers, according to First Orion, a company that provides call-blocking services.

Spoofing

“We have to get our hands around this problem if we’re going to be able to use our phones the way they are intended to be used,” said Utah assistant attorney general David Sonnenreich.

Despite new federal rules and record-breaking fines the Federal Communications Commission has slapped on several robocallers recently, Sonnenreich says the illegal calls keep coming.

“Fraudsters are creative and find ways around,” he said. “It will take a concerted, long-term effort and we have to make it not viable for them economically.”

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Neighbor spoofing is one way scammers use to get you to answer the phone. They alter area codes and prefixes on the caller ID to make calls appear to be from a local number. The scammers bank on us being more likely to answer calls we think are coming from a neighbor or our kids’ school.

Sonnenreich says even he has been tripped up by spoofed phone calls.

“You think it is some sort of important crisis and you have to deal with it,” he said. “But it’s somebody saying, ‘Don’t hang up, you have just won a fabulous vacation.’”

Going after a single robocaller operation, even a big one, is a very time-intensive effort for investigators.

“We don’t have the resources to track down everyone who calls you with an illegal call,” explained Sonnenreich.

Recognizing this growing problem, the Utah attorney general and 34 of his counterparts sent a letter to the FCC in October, calling on the agency to pull the plug on spoofed robocalls by allowing carriers to detect and block the calls before they reach our phones.

“Usually, when we get involved, it is after the fraud has occurred and the money is lost,” explained Sonnenreich. “We want to use technology to stop the robocall from occurring in the first place.”

“We are in an arms race”

A new call-blocking technology called STIR / SHAKEN is well underway and should roll out over the next year.

“There is a tremendous, massive commitment by industry to fight these guys,” said Kevin Rupy of USTelecom, a trade association representing the telecom industry.

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Here’s how it works: the caller’s network attaches a digital token confirming the call is from its real phone number.

“As that call transits through, it gets passed through one network to the next and that token gets passed to each successive carrier,” explained Rupy.

If your network cannot verify that token, you don’t get the call.

“That is the standard being developed, and it will provide some type of image on your phone saying that call has been verified,” Rupy said. “Basically, it introduces trust into the caller ID framework.

While that should help cut down on spoofing, both Rupy and Sonnenreich caution there is no silver bullet for robocalls. The bad guys constantly adapt.

“We are in an arms race,” said Sonnenreich, “and that is what we will always be in.”

Fighting back

There are ways you can weed out robocalls now, without waiting for technology to catch up.

Many third-party apps like NomoRobo, TrueCaller and Hiya work by comparing incoming calls to a huge and constantly growing list of known scam numbers. If there’s a match, the call gets blocked.

For $2.99 a month, Verizon and Sprint offer caller ID services that alert you if a call is a likely scam. It is up to you to decide if you want to take the call or not. AT&T and T-Mobile offer similar services for free.

First, do not answer calls from unknown numbers. If you do answer the phone and the recording gives you a choice to opt out of future calls, hang up without pressing any buttons. It is a common way for scammers to identify potential targets.

Also, make sure to file a complaint with the FCC or Federal Trade Commission with the time and date of the call, as well as the number that showed up on your caller ID. You will not see immediate results, but those complaints help investigators go after the bad guys.

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Sloan Schrage
Lori Prichard

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