Robocalls: A thief is on the line

2013-07-21T00:30:00Z 2014-05-02T17:02:09Z Robocalls: A thief is on the lineBy Jim Gallagher jgallagher@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8390 stltoday.com

If you get a robocall from a telemarketer, hang up.

Don’t press one — the option that connects you to a live person. You might well get scammed.

Don’t press two — the option that’s supposed to take you off their calling list. You may get more robocalls, not less, if you confirm that a human being answers your number.

Robocalls, generated by a computer and starting with a recorded message, are a favorite device of politicians seeking votes; even some police departments use them to issue neighborhood crime alerts. That’s innocent, if annoying.

But advances in technology are turning the robocall telemarketing business into a fast-growing money-machine for thieves. It is a “criminal sandbox,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who held a Senate subcommittee hearing into the business earlier this month. It is “ridden with fraud,” says Lois Greisman, of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau.

People who answered robocalls found their credit cards billed for things they thought were free. Others found themselves suckered into costly debt-reduction scams or overpriced, loophole-ridden auto warranties.

Those may be the lucky ones. “Most of these people are not trying to sell you sprinklers. They are trying to steal your identity. They want your credit card, bank information, the last four digits of your Social Security number,” said Joe Bindbeutel, chief counsel of the consumer protection division in the Missouri attorney general’s office. They’ll drain your bank account and run up your credit card bill.

That’s why smart people hang up.

Robocalls are generated by an auto dialer that can place thousands of calls per minute. The Federal Communications Commissions has seen robocall complaints double from 2010 to 2012. The Federal Trade Commission is getting 200,000 robocall complaints per month.

The mere fact that a robocall telemarketer jangles your phone is a sign of shadiness. Federal regulations prohibit such calls unless the caller has specifically agreed in advance to receive them — with exceptions for politics, school-closing messages and other nonsales uses, including debt collection.

That goes beyond existing state and federal laws prohibiting commercial sales calls to people on do-not-call lists.

Many robocallers ignore all that. “The robocaller guys don’t care. They keep calling and calling,” Bindbeutel says.

It’s hard to catch them. Even the phone companies don’t know who is making them. The melding of voice-over-Internet with the phone system has made tracing such calls much harder. Many are overseas, putting them out of Uncle Sam’s reach.

They fake, or “spoof,” the caller-ID number that shows up on consumers’ phones, often choosing a fake number in the same area code as the consumer.

The FTC has issued $215 million in fines against robocallers. But it’s been able to collect only $15 million, according to McCaskill.

“It seems to me that these guys are not very afraid of you. They’re not nervous at all,” McCaskill told federal officials at the hearing.

Robodialing companies sell their services to telemarketers. Google “robocall” and you’ll see ads for several. “Call up to 2,500 a minute,” promises a robodialer named Call-em-all. Telemarketers can choose their own caller-ID, says the firm. Some robodialers promise to scrub their phone list against the do-not-call list.

There may be technical solutions to this, but American phone companies are skeptical.

A Canadian phone company, Primus, uses crowdsourcing to screen out robocallers. Customers can report getting such calls to Primus. If enough callers report the same phone number, Primus uses other data to decide if it’s a robocaller. It intercepts such calls and asks the caller to state a name. If the caller states one, the system passes the name to the customer, who can decide whether to accept the call.

The Federal Trade Commission this year held a national contest, offering prizes for methods to screen out robocallers. One of the winners, a New York firm called Nomorobo, uses “machine learning” to identify robocalls using the frequency of the calls. It blocks the ones it’s sure of, and uses a screening system like Primus’ for the uncertain ones. Schools, police and other legal callers get on a “white list” of numbers that aren’t blocked.

The system works using call-forwarding options offered by phone companies. The company is a startup, and its system isn’t yet available commercially.

American phone companies worry that such systems will block legitimate calls. There is no “technological silver bullet,” said Michael Altschul, general counsel of the Wireless Association, representing the cellphone industry.

Phone companies fear a technological battle similar to that in computer hacking, with robocallers inventing ladders faster than the phone companies can build walls.

Jim Gallagher is a reporter at the Post-Dispatch

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