I still have a hard-wired phone (for reasons I’ll get to later). Don’t bother to call me on it. I likely won’t answer. And if you leave a voicemail, I probably won’t ever hear it.
Here’s what happens when my house phone rings. I don’t respond to the first ring because I am using a software (NoMoRobo) that will answer robocalls and then hang up after one ring. Then, if it rings a second time my phone (Panasonic) announces the caller by reading the caller ID. Unfortunately they use the worst text to voice technology I’ve ever encountered so unless the caller has a name like Bob Mark, it is generally unintelligible. That doesn’t stop me from waiting two or three rings to try to figure it out. At this point I may decide to wander over to the phone, but by the time this happens and I get there, the call has already gone to voicemail. So, having gotten to the phone too late, I may try to check voicemail. But after finding out that there are two dozen voicemail messages, even though I cleaned it out earlier in the week, and that I would have to go through each one to get to the most recent, I don’t bother. The voicemails are all about two seconds long, left by a spammer, and with no message.
So why do I still have a hard-wired phone? Good question. I actually called my provider, Verizon, and asked to disconnect it. But they advised that if I did, my bill would actually go up since I’m getting a promotional rate for a bundled service that includes internet, TV and phone. Thus it turns out that in order to get a marginally reasonable rate on what I really want, which is wifi and a handful of TV stations I might actually watch, I must also get not only several hundred TV stations I will never watch in my lifetime but also a nuisance landline phone service that has been taken over by spammers..
This problem, of course, is not limited to my hard-wired phone, nor to me personally. In November of 2019, 5 billion robocalls were placed. That’s 167 million each day, an average of more than 15 calls per person. (YouMail Robocall Index.) Most of these calls are focused on selling some type of crappy health insurance or a useless warranty. Some are more dangerous: scammers looking to trick you into providing information that will give them access to your money or your identity. It is apparently a very successful business with a high profit margin.
How did this pile of garbage explode into our phones? According to Google Phone App Product Manager Paul Dunlop the enabling technology is VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol. (Google Expert Explains Why You Get So Many Robocalls.) By using VoIP you can make a phone call over the internet rather than through a wire. By doing so, you don’t have to make the call from a specific phone number and can instead make it appear to be coming from any number you want. Thus we have spoofing. Spammers generally are using computer generated programs to spit out an unlimited number of phone numbers.
These numbers will show up in the caller ID on your phone and will usually be accompanied by the name of a town that the phone number’s exchange is in. That has led to a practice called neighbor spoofing. So I might get calls that identify the location as the town I live in or the town where my son goes to school or works. Thus I answer. They also may have access to other personal data (is that you Zuckerberg?). For example, I have gone to a medical appointment in Hackensack, a town where I know nobody, and the following day got spoofed calls from a Hackensack number. You may also find that it’s your phone number that’s being spoofed and you may get an angry return call.
So where do we look for help with this? First of all it is the carriers who should be doing something to control this. According to TechCrunch, “spoofing happens because the carriers don’t verify that a phone number is real before a call crosses their networks.” (How to Stop Robocalls Spamming Your Phone.) The same story notes that a technology exists to stop it. That technology, called STIR/Shaken “relies on every phone number having a unique digital signature which, when checked against the call networks will prove you are a real caller. The carrier then approves the call and patches it through to the recipient.”
The carriers have been told by the FCC to implement this technology at no charge to the customer. There is also legislation that has passed both houses of Congress requiring that the carriers do this. Have they? Nope. But they have instead charged customers for some half-assed solutions. AT&T will charge you $3.99 a month for “Call Protect Plus”; Sprint charges $2.99 a month just to allow customers to block calls and for $2.99 a month Verizon offers a ”risk meter.” My Verizon phone will occasionally identify a caller as spam, maybe one in ten.
How about the FCC? The FCC chairman Ajit Pai is a former Verizon employee who has in his role largely done the bidding of the major carriers. One of his first moves as FCC chairman was to roll back net neutrality regulations, thus opening up a revenue stream for the major carriers by allowing them to charge large content providers for a faster pathway to their users, thus slowing down everyone else and making us a secondary priority.
Nonetheless Pai insists that stopping phone spam is a top priority. Occasionally somebody gets nabbed. In September of 2018 a sleazeball by the name of Philip Roesel was fined $82 million for illegal caller ID spoofing, including 21 million robocalls to market health insurance. This was under the Truth in Caller ID Act which prohibits falsifying caller ID info to disguise one’s identity. But, according to TechCrunch, the “FCC has fined robocallers more than $200 million in recent years but collected just $6,790 because the agency lacks the authority to enforce the fines.”
So, for the most part, we’re on our own to deal with this. I started by listing my phone number in the federal Do Not Call registry as soon as I became aware of it. I assume that somewhere there is an honest marketer who doesn’t call me because my number is on that list. But for the folks who are behind the 5 billion a month robocalls, they could care less about the Do Not Call Registry.
So then I discovered that if you let the robo-message play to the end you would get the option to click on a number to tell them never to call again. Turns out that is the worst thing your can do. By answering, clicking or otherwise engaging you are confirming for the spammer’s system that you are a live wire and now you’ll get even more calls.
My iPhone gives me the option to block callers and I found the same option in the Verizon app for my hard-wired phone. One observer compared trying to keep up with this to playing Whack-a-Mole. You might be able to stop a few repeat calls but with spoofers generating one number after another it quickly starts to become a waste of time. Unfortunately I also created some ill will by accidentally blocking my mother-in-law.
A further look at the Verizon app uncovered a feature called “block anonymous calls.” With no explanation I assumed this would stop the occasional spam call I get where the caller ID reads “unknown caller.” I enabled that and have found absolutely no evidence it has ever blocked anything.
So then I looked at outside services to try to get a handle on this. As mentioned earlier I use NoMoRobo on my hard-wired phone. I installed it about three years ago and at first it worked pretty well. The software can identify robotic calls. It then ‘answers’ the call and hangs up after one ring. NoMoRobo blocks a call or two to my number just about everyday, but it struggles with spoofers and at this point far more get through than are stopped. The software is free for hard-wired phones for certain carriers. There is a charge to use it on a mobile and it isn’t working well enough for me to pay for it.
On my mobile, I installed Hiya. This is something of a crowd-sourced spam fighter. It depends on its users to report spam, then it blocks the number and identifies it as spam for other users. Much like NoMoRobo, it stops some calls. But it also can’t deal that well with spoofers because they are using legitimate numbers that belong to real people and businesses, just not to them. No matter how many numbers you block and report, the spammers are generating new ones all the time. Hiya is also free.
Most recently I started a one week trial of RoboKiller (not free) on my mobile. So far, so good. Three days and I haven’t gotten a spam call on my mobile. RoboKiller also gives you the option to have their system answer the call and play a pre-recorded message, often humorous (mine is a woman seeking the robocaller’s advice on what to do about her boyfriend’s bad breath). This supposedly ties up at least one line of the spammer’s system. Who knows whether it really impacts them but it does give you the feeling of satisfaction that you are fighting back.
But the larger picture is that either the unwillingness or the incapability of our government agencies and the phone companies to deal with this has nearly destroyed telephone service in the U.S. (Apparently things are much better in Europe where both the government and the carriers have been active in stopping spammers.) I have missed many a call I would have wanted to get because every time my phone rings, I assume it’s garbage. So, as I said in the beginning, if you want to reach me, don’t waste your time calling the phone.
(all images from Unsplash)