If it feels like you’ve been receiving more frequent calls about extended car warranties you don’t have, credit cards you don’t want or fines you supposedly haven’t paid, you’re not alone.
According to a study released in September by communications data firm First Orion, nearly 45 percent of all calls to cell phones in the United States will be connected to some type of scam by early 2019 — a drastic increase from the 3.7 percent the firm reported just a year ago.
A large percentage of calls documented in 2017 used pre-recorded “robocalls,” many featuring a newer tactic called “neighbor spoofing.” Spoofing, for short, is when an out-of-town caller deliberately takes steps to falsify information sent to a phone’s caller ID display in order appear as a local number.
But while the frequency of these calls may be increasing, federal agencies, wireless carriers and other private industries are also ramping up efforts to combat the annoying trend.
“We get somewhere between 450,000 or 550,000 calls per months about unwanted calls,” Ian Barlow, coordinator of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC’s) Do Not Call Program said. “In terms of spoofing specifically, we don’t have concrete numbers because a lot of consumers don’t even know that term to report it. A lot of them may not even know a number has been faked.”
While many cell phone users have ignored “No Caller ID” or “Unknown” numbers for years, the growing trend of spoofed calls has caught some off guard. Often, spoofed calls will appear as a number with the same area code and prefix as the call recipient.
Some people may be able to easily let those calls go to voicemail, but ignoring the calls may not be an option for parents with children in local schools, professions relying upon interaction with the public, or businesses which communicate with customers using company cell phones.
According to Barlow, both the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been working to address the rise of spoofing, though he did note, while spoofing is illegal in almost every case, not everyone using the tactic is running an illegal scam.
“These telemarketers or fraudsters are using numbers they [don’t have] the authority to use, but with that said, it may not be a fraudulent product they’re selling,” he added. “It could be a legitimate company like Dish Network, which the FTC sued [in 2009].”
The lawsuit resulted in a $280 million civil penalty against Dish Network in 2017, accusing the company of, among other things, using “robocalls” to deliver pre-recorded telemarketing messages and calling consumers registered on the FTC’s “Do Not Call” list.
Barlow said it’s illegal to place telemarketing calls to anyone on the “Do Not Call” list and it also violates FTC rules to use “robocalls” to sell a product. However, the same does not apply to general calls, political calls and calls seeking input on public surveys.
“At the FTC, we’ve filed 140 cases related to Do Not Call, robocall and spoofing violations in recent years,” Barlow said. “We’ve sued 165 corporate entities and 374 individuals. We’ve recovered over $1.6 billion in judgments and have actually collected more than $121 million.”
According to its website, the FTC has initiated cases or proceedings against 27 companies in the past month alone, and the FCC has been similarly aggressive in enforcement. Earlier this year, it issued a $120 million fine against a single individual in Florida for allegedly making close to 100 million automated calls offering unsolicited vacation deals.
While the fines might seem excessive, there’s already broad support among law enforcement officials for increasing them. In October, attorneys general from 35 states signed a letter to the FCC urging it to continue to crackdown on spoofing and to consider harsher penalties.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was not among those who signed the letter.
While legal action can help stop individual and corporate offenders, Barlow said law enforcement alone isn’t going to solve the problem. Thus, the FTC works to educate consumers and to support industry-backed solutions from telecom companies.
Third-party call blocking applications have been available for cell phones for some time, but aren’t always effective at blocking “spoofed” calls. However, some companies are already in the process of adopting new technology standards specifically addressing spoofed calls.
A handful of wireless carriers have been working to implement Secure Telephony Identity Revisited (STIR) technology standards and a system to govern their use that could help ensure incoming calls have the authority to use the number appearing on a caller ID in real time.
Yet, adopting STIR standards is voluntary and won’t prevent unwanted calls. Instead, it aims to allow participating carriers to warn customers when the origin of an incoming call can’t be properly verified — which Barlow said should be a “big red flag.”
“Certain carriers say they’re planning to start implementing [STIR] by the end of this year and into early 2019,” He added. “The hope is, even though it’s voluntarily, that it will be popular with consumers and eventually more carriers will have to implement it in order to complete.”
Unwanted calls may always be an annoyance to consumers, but Barlow said the FTC has made significant efforts to educate the public so fewer people fall victim to predatory phone scams.
He said common calls to be wary of include: pre-recorded messages soliciting money calls asking consumers to pay for something using prepaid cards or money transfers and callers who claim to know personal information like, “We know you’re having trouble with your computer.”
It’s also important to note, even when consumers realize they may have received a scam call, prolonging the time of the call in hopes of annoying the perpetrator or by following prompts to be put on “do not call” list can trigger even more calls in the future.
“Our consumer education points of emphasis have been: register your number at donotcall.gov, hang up on any unwanted or illegal calls, report unwanted calls the FTC or the FCC and consider some type of call blocking application,” Barlow said. “We value the consumer complaints we receive, because the more complaint data we get from the public, the better.”