Tips to Avoid Robo Calls

Shannon Harrar, Centurion Staff

If you have a cell phone, chances are you’ve experienced annoying spam calls; you know, the ones that come a little too often? Calling about your car’s extended warranty, that electric bill from a mysterious unnamed company, the list goes on. Traditionally, they would just be nuisance calls, but spammers have been evolving. Robocallers, through new methods such as “spoofing,” have more power than ever before when it comes to stealing your information and/or using it without your permission.

Robocalls are the number one consumer complaint according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In a 2018 Scam Report, First Orion, a provider in phone call and data transparency solutions, predicted that 45 percent of calls to U.S. mobile numbers in 2019 would be scam calls. They weren’t far off in that prediction, but a new issue has arisen. As phone users wise up to the tricks and schemes of scammers, new paths are paved.

Scammers now partake in a method called “spoofing” or “enterprise spoofing,” in which frauds can disguise their phone numbers as local residents or business numbers. Seeing a familiar number, in turn, makes the user more inclined to answer the phone call. Enterprise spoofing is a little more serious, as scammers can tap into stolen information from data breaches, then use that information to make their calls more legitimate. First Orion released that in 2018, 75 percent of callers reported that scammers had their personal info and attempted to use it to gain more harmful knowledge, and that of those who lost over $1,000 from scam calls, 32 percent report the scammers having used familiar business numbers.

The FCC offers these specific tips to protect yourself from scammers.

  • Never give out any personal information, names, passwords, and CERTAINLY not your social security number.
  • Be especially wary of automated voice recording calls that give the option of pressing a button to stop receiving calls. They will not stop; they use this method to identify potential targets.
  • Do not respond to questions, especially ones that prompt you to answer “yes” or “no.” These calls will be recorded, and any information is given out, even your voice can be used against you.

These tips may seem like common sense to some, but these calls pose a serious threat to more vulnerable targets. Those who fall prey are typically naïve or elderly people. One particularly effective spam tactic entails the spammers telling their victims that they are with the IRS. Detective Rosanna Filippello-Sztuba the Philadelphia police department’s 9th district gave more detail on this spam tactic.

“The caller will state that the person owes back taxes and there will be a warrant for their arrest if they don’t pay it immediately. The scammers are very forceful and intimidating. They tell the person to go out to a store and get thousands of dollars’ worth of gift cards. Then they want the card numbers, and once they get those numbers they disappear with the money. Victims who fall for this scam rarely see their money ever again,” said Filippello.

The IRS will never call to demand immediate payment in such specific methods, nor will they ever threaten to use police force if you don’t pay them, this is stated directly on the website. Earlier this year, the IRS released a statement explaining that even they had fallen prey to the enterprise spoofing tactic and that scammers were faking calls from their Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), an independent organization within the IRS. “TAS can help protect your taxpayer rights. TAS can help if you need assistance resolving an IRS problem… TAS does not initiate calls to taxpayers “out of the blue,”” states the news release. The number of ways that scammers can manipulate information out of consumers is larger than one may think, and it is wise to educate yourself on the different means and methods.

It is not just the FCC and IRS warning consumers about how to stay alert to these threats. Major phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon have also joined the effort. Back in June, the FCC voted to allow telephone companies to identify and block calls without getting permission from customers first. AT&T was the first company to practice this blocking by default method. Companies are also helping to educate consumers. The Verizon website reports data findings that “an estimated 47.8 billion robocalls were made in 2018, a 37 percent increase from the previous year,” according to YouMail, a robocall blocking software company. With new ways to combat robocalls in the making, we should see numbers like these on the decline soon.

The issue has become so prominent that the government has now had to intervene. This past July, a bill was passed by Congress in attempts to deter robocalls and hold the FCC and cell companies more accountable. The “Stopping Bad Robocalls Act” calls for tougher penalties for scammers, including fines up to $10,000. It will also require mandatory call authentication tech to be installed by carriers, at no extra cost to customers. As for the FCC, they’re now called upon to update their definition of robocalls in order to make sure organizations do not use robocall to contact customers without their consent. This can include financial institutions that use automated calls to warn customers about potentially fraudulent transactions.

Another type of spam calls/texts that are a popular complaint, and are especially prominent around this time of year, are political campaign messages. The FCC explains that depending on how and to whom these messages are sent, they may or may not be within their span of control. For instance, prerecorded calls and robotexts are not permitted to contact cell phones or protected lines, such as hospitals, but are allowed to contact landlines. Additionally, any prerecorded voice messages, campaign-related or otherwise, must provide certain identification information, including the name of the business, individual, or entity the call is being made on behalf of, as well as a return phone number.

With all these rules and restrictions in place to combat robocalls, the FCC, telecom companies, and consumers alike all hope to see a significant decline in their frequency. In the meantime, it’s important to stay alert to the threats and always remember, when in doubt, don’t hang on, hang up!