A robocall is a phone call that uses a computerized autodialer to deliver a pre-recorded message and are often associated with political and telemarketing phone campaigns. Some robocalls use personalized audio messages to simulate an actual personal phone call. Some marketing companies set robocalls to dial random numbers until someone answers then the call is transferred to a salesperson who tries to sell to the unwary recipient of the call.
The problem is that over time fraudsters have realized the potential of robocalling and the majority of these calls are now more likely to be an attempt to trick or deceive the recipient into a scam that usually costs them money. And the problem is growing!
Last year over 48 billion (yes, 48 billion!) robocalls were paced in the USA alone, but the issue is certain not limited to that market. The US agency in charge of protecting consumers from communications scams, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), anticipates more than half of all calls placed this year will be robocalls and lawmakers are rushing to push legislation to fix the growing problem.
Communications service providers in the US have come up with new technology to battle robocalls. STIR/SHAKEN (short for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-Based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens) is a pair of network protocols that use digital certificates to ensure that the calls a customer receives aren’t coming from spoofed numbers.
But this won’t be enough to solve the problem on its own. The protocol doesn’t identify bad actors, and while carriers have started to implement it, it’s been a long process that involves a multitude of companies that need to partner and deploy new technology. In addition, authenticating calls is very different from blocking them or even identifying them as scams.
Robocall scams are fraudulent in nature and there have been some classic cases where the proponents have been caught, yet the majority escape capture, let alone conviction. Last May, the FCC hit a notorious robocaller from Miami, Florida, with a $120 million fine. In three months, Adrian Abramovich was able to place 96 million unwanted calls offering fake travel deals.
Robocalling is also not limited to voice calls, a variation mastered by popular Chinese app developer, DO Global, committed ad fraud by abusing user permissions via an app. At least six of their apps were found by researchers to contain code for fake revenue-generating ad-clicking that would run in the background even when a user kept the app closed.
As consumers are starting to get wise to robocalling scams the fraudsters have moved on to the one-ring call. Here, the robocaller will dial a number before hanging up after one to two rings. This might be done repeatedly, quite often at night, in the hope the consumer calls back and runs up a premium number toll that is largely paid to the scammer along the lines of ‘Wangiri’ scams.
Here are some examples of the most common robocall scams:
Number spoofing – these calls look like they are local because the real calling number location is disguised by using the area code of the number being called. Taking it one step further, these spoofed numbers also adopt the local exchange of the number being called. To a potential victim, the call looks like it is being made locally, so they are more likely to answer it.
Travel packages scam - “Free” or “low cost” vacations that end up costing a bundle in hidden costs. Some of these vacations never take place, even after you’ve paid.
Credit and loans scam - advance fee loans, payday loans, credit card protection, and offers to lower your credit card interest rates are very popular schemes, especially during a down economy.
Sham or exaggerated business and investment opportunities scam - promoters of these have made millions of dollars. Scammers rely on the fact that business and investing can be complicated and that most people don’t research the investment.
Charitable causes scam - gent requests for recent disaster relief efforts are especially common on the phone.
High-stakes foreign lotteries scam - these pitches are against the law, which prohibits the cross-border sale or purchase of lottery tickets by phone or mail. What’s more, you may never see a ticket.
Extended car warranties scam - scammers find out what kind of car you drive, and when you bought it so they can urge you to buy overpriced — or worthless — plans.
“Free” trial offers scam - some companies use free trials to sign you up for products (sometimes lots of products) that can cost you lots of money because they bill you every month until you cancel.
Chinese Consulate scam - targets consumers in urban areas where there are likely to be a large number of Chinese immigrants. The recorded message is in Mandarin and informs the recipient they have to pick up a package at the Chinese Consulate office or provide information to the Chinese Consulate to avoid being in trouble. If the victim stays on the line, the scammer then asks for the person's bank or credit card information or tells them to make a bank transfer to them. One report claims that more than 30 consumers in New York City were tricked out of an estimated $3 million by these calls.
Health insurance scam - may be the most common robocall scam of 2018. These calls promoted various health insurance plans and offered help in navigating the health insurance marketplace. Of course, there was a fee for that service.
Search engine optimization scam - probably 90% of consumers don't fall for this because it is targeted at businesses yet it can be very effective with entrepreneurs and individually-owned businesses trying to compete online with the big guys. In this scheme, the recorded message tells people that unless they return the call, their listing on Google Search and Maps will imminently vanish or be labeled as "closed." These robocallers are also tricking businesses into paying for unwanted SEO services.
Tax scam - has been around for quite a while; robocall technology just helps scammers reach more potential victims. The message purports to be from the tax department or internal revenue service demanding that victims pay a non-existent tax bill. The message may say that the caller is a tax inspector and even recite fake badge numbers to make everything sound official. Just remember that most tax departments communicate to taxpayers through the mail, not with robocalls.
Despite new technology being constantly developed to thwart robocalling and its associate scams the fraudsters seem to keep one step ahead. Like any fraudulent activity, awareness and constant monitoring are still the best means of combating. AI is being added to the arsenal as the key weapon in the battle and will hopefully win over.