On Friday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel unveiled a plan to crack down on illegal scam calls. The announcement came following a report that Americans received a record-breaking number of robocalls last month.
Americans received 5.7 billion robocalls in October, an all-time high, according to software company YouMail. This translates to over 182 million robocalls per day, or 2,115 per second.
The US has received about 49 billion robocalls so far this year, which is more than were received during the full year of 2018, the company said.
Not all robocalls are illegal—alerts from schools, police, collections agencies or legal telemarketers are examples of legal robocalls—but scams accounted for nearly half of all robocalls Americans received last month, according to the report. Here’s a more detailed breakdown:
- Alerts and reminders: 22%
- Payment reminders: 19%
- Telemarketing: 12%
- Scams: 47%
Five types of scams exceeded more than 100 million calls each, the most common of which were health related scams.
- Health related scams: 473 million
- Interest rate scams: 236 million
- Student loan scams: 219 million
- Social security scams: 154 million
- Warranty scams: 105 million
How robocalls work
Robocalls are simply prerecorded messages received by telephone. A scam message may try to convince the recipient that they have won a prize, that there is an issue related to student loans, or that there is a warrant out for their arrest.
One common scam will involve telling the recipient that they have won a large amount of money, but they just need to pay a processing fee in order to claim it. In another common robocall, the message comes in Chinese and specifically targets Asian-Americans, trying to get them to pay purported immigration-related fees.
Scammers are no longer bound by landlines. They can purchase a list of leads and have a computer make a deluge of calls at low cost and little risk of getting caught. The ability to make thousands of calls a day means that only relatively few people to fall for the scam to make the operation profitable.
Many scammers use a process known as “spoofing” to make people more likely to pick up the phone by having their number show up differently on a caller ID. The technology can make the area code on an incoming call match the recipient’s, making it appear that they are receiving the call from someone nearby.
What’s being done to stop robocalls?
When scammers are caught, they can receive a substantial fine from the FCC.
Last year, a Florida man was fined $120 million for setting up a program that made nearly 100 million robocalls between 2015 and 2016. Adrian Abramovich’s scheme involved making calls offering vacation deals from well-known travel companies like TripAdvisor or Expedia, according to the FCC.
Robocalls to nonconsenting individuals are already illegal under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, and violators can be fined millions (between $500 and $1,500 per call).
This year, Congress passed the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act and the TRACED Act. The legislation requires carriers to participate in a program called SHAKEN/STIR that checks calls against a database of known scam phone numbers. If a number matches a reported scammer, the caller ID shows up as “Scam Likely.” In January 2018, T-Mobile became the first company to implement the SHAKEN/STIR standards.
On Friday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel outlined a dozen initiatives to crack down on illegal robocalls.
“When people are going to behave the worst is when they think no one is watching and no one is prosecuting them," Nessel said. "The message we want to send loud and clear is if you are engaged in this kind of illegal activity, we’re going to come after you.”
What can you do?
Despite the measures being taken, some scammers will still get through. It is generally recommended that individuals avoid answering calls from numbers they do not recognize, and absolutely avoid paying for anything over the phone.
There are plenty of apps available that will automatically block robocalls or send them to voicemail. Mashable recommends Hiya as the best free app, Nomorobo as the best paid app, and YouMail as the best app for business.
If individuals want to stop receiving legal robocalls, they can add their number to the FCC’s National Do Not Call Registry.