Robocalls are not even the worst of it
By Gail Collins
I am happy to inform you that the federal government is revving up the war on robocalls.
I checked on how things were going just after hanging up on a tinny-voiced woman who wanted to warn me that my car’s extended warranty was going to expire unless I pressed 1. In case I didn’t really care, she could take me off the calling list forever if I pressed 2.
Public service announcement: People, do not press 2. It’s press 1’s evil twin sister.
Robocalls refer to anything that comes to your phone via automated dialing. Which might include legal stuff you want to hear about, like a snow day.
But we’re thinking only of the uninvited ones. Like “Chris from U.S. Autocare” who hung up when I asked how he got my name and number or the recorded voice of an alleged representative from Citibank who warned me about “suspicious activity” on my card that could be rectified only by pressing 1 right away.
Phone companies are now required to install cool new technology that enables them to stop these robocalls from getting through. Unfortunately, when U.S. Public Interest Research Group checked into the 49 largest such businesses, only 16 seemed to have completed the job, as of mid-September.
And even more unfortunately, it looks as if the scammers are finding a new route that makes them even harder to avoid. We’ll get to that in a second.
First — good news! Scam robocalls fell by about 11% from July to August, according to YouMail, a robocall-blocking company that tracks these things.
(Bad news! Thanks to the drop, we got only about 1.4 billion in August.)
One of the Federal Communications Commission’s big new weapons in the war against robocallers is known as STIR/SHAKEN, further proof that everything in this world has a weird name.
Question: What does STIR/SHAKEN stand for?
A) Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs.
B) Different ways to prepare mixed drinks.
C) Somebody Took Irene’s Robot/Sylvia Has Attractive Knees; Evelyn Notsomuch.
I know, I know, you all liked the one with alcohol in it.
STIR/SHAKEN aims to make it really hard for robocallers to use phony caller IDs. If you saw an ID on your phone announcing “scam risk” was on the line, I bet you wouldn’t answer it. But what if you just saw a phone number with your area code? Might be a telemarketing trickster. Or maybe something real you don’t want to miss. (Hey, wasn’t Uncle Fred talking about going to some wildlife preserve that lets you feed the bears by hand?)
The phony ID thing is known as spoofing. And anyone can do it. You can buy services that allow you to seem to be dialing from a different number. The theory, its sellers boast, is that it allows you to protect your privacy. Teresa Murray of U.S. PIRG notes that it would also allow you to impersonate the IRS or Chase or Amazon or whatever — “they even have an option that you can change your voice to someone of the opposite sex. Isn’t that swell?”
Despite all the downside, regulations against robocalling in all its variations are pretty thorough, and the government is trying hard to make them work in real life.
We will now stop for 30 seconds while you guess what comes after the inevitable “But …”
No, it’s not “But we’re worried about all those unemployed telemarketers.”
The answer is: But while scam robocalls dropped over the summer, scam texts were booming. Zooming.
Yes! Spam texts! RoboKiller, a filtering app, said the number of spam texts that will be sent in the United States could be as high as 86 billion in 2021. The Federal Trade Commission estimates Americans lost around $86 million to spam texts last year.
The FCC really needs to move robotexting to the top of its enforcement list, but that may not work until Congress gives it more authority.
“Everyone’s expecting that’s where the bad guys are going to gravitate,” said Murray.
Spam texts can be very short (“You Won!”), and there are no human voices to remind you that this message is really coming from a total stranger.
Just remember that the rules for dealing with them are pretty much the same as with a recorded message: Don’t respond — not even to suggestions that you simply let the texter know you want to be left alone. Don’t press anything. Really, ignore the sucker. Even if it promises to go away forever if you just tell it — um, text it — to stop. No texting back!
Just like those phone calls. The ideal response is always hanging up. If you answer, even to say “Stop bothering me,” the computer can try to put you through to a live salesperson.
Which is, at a minimum, encouraging them. “Honestly, you shouldn’t pick up the calls, and for God’s sake you shouldn’t press 1,” said Murray. “No pressing, no yelling, no air horns, no boat horns. No nothing.”
Yeah, some people apparently went to war against robocallers so intently that they’ve started blowing horns into the phone receiver. And I have to admit that sounds sorta fascinating. As long as you aren’t living in the apartment next door.