Putting the Brakes on Spam Phone Calls
By Diane Tait
|Image courtesy flickr|
I’m old enough that I still remember the days before cellphones, as well as the first generation of mobile phones that either resembled a brick with an antenna or lived in a bag that we plugged into the cigarette lighter in our cars. Back then it cost a small fortune to make calls on mobile phones. That was the bad news. The good news was when your mobile phone rang, you could rest assured it was a call from a client or friend who had your cellphone number. Today, the odds are about 50/50 that the call routed to your smartphone is spam. That’s right, nearly half the calls received in the US are from telemarketers. That’s ten times the amount of spam generated just two years ago. What’s even worse is that many of us took the time and trouble to register our cell numbers on the Do Not Call registry maintained by the government. While the registry was supposed to reduce the amount of spam we received, from the statistics I just quoted it’s apparent that the effort has been less than successful.
Rise of the Robocalls – Ten years ago when you received a solicitation on your phone, at least it was from a real live human being. That gave you the opportunity to either tell the caller to take you off their list or tell them off. Today, 90% of spam calls are made by robots that think nothing of calling your cellphone at all hours of the day and night. Not only do these annoy-a-matic systems pester you nonstop, most of them don’t have a mechanism to let you opt out of being called back. Those that do don’t always stop the nuisance calls from coming in, since robotic systems have hundreds of phone numbers from which to choose. That means they’re a lot like roaches. Stepping on one doesn’t stop others in the swarm from invading your space. Neither does telling your phone to block the number.
While there is technically a $10,000 fine that’s supposed to be imposed on spam callers whenever they call a number listed on the Do Not Call registry, good luck serving the summons. Like it or not, most spammers are located offshore. Just like hackers, even if the feds can determine where they’re located, they have neither the manpower nor the jurisdiction to take legal action. This pretty much leaves it up to all us consumers and small business owners to do what we can to curb this menace.
What You’re Supposed to Do - The official solution touted by the government is to sign up for the Do Not Call registry, then file a complaint with the FTC for any spam calls received after the 30-day waiting period. Like that will do anything but waste an enormous amount of your time. The feds also say you should refuse to answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. That tactic actually worked about 5-years ago. If you saw an area code from out of state that wasn’t from an old college alumni, odds were it was spam. That made it easy to weed out the spammers. Not so much today, since spammers now come equipped with an armada of local numbers they can use to fly under the radar. Unless you can afford to let every unrecognized number that hits your cellphone go to voice mail, which most business owners can’t, then you’re going to have to deal with spoofed spam calls.
|Image courtesy navy.mil|
What Can You Do? – If you do answer the phone to hear a robotic voice say something like “Don’t hang up,” or “Hit one to…”, your first defense is to hang up and use your phones call blocking function to keep the same number from calling you back. Some phone services even have a function that identifies known robocall numbers by listing them as Scam Likely on your smartphone screen. I’ve found this helps weed out more than half the spammers and scammers trying to get me to answer the call. If you answer the call even to say “No” when prompted by the robocall, you are falling into the spammers trap. Any response automatically guarantees your number will be flagged for even more aggressive calling patterns.
When Spam Becomes Scam – The real danger isn’t merely being annoyed by half the calls you receive, it’s the peril of being duped by a caller you assume to be legitimate. This happens far more than you think. Callers have been duped by scammers posing as everything from IRS agents and police officers to shipping agents and phone company reps. Fall for their line of BS and you can quickly find your phone, your credit card or your bank account compromised. Even if you think you’d never fall for such a stunt, it’s easier to get fooled than you think. Or worse, your elderly parents can wind up being taken in by smooth talking con artists who tell them they’re with the Social Security Administration. The bottom line is that nobody is immune from being scammed nowadays. It’s gotten to the point that even when I get a call purportedly from a provider, I will tell them I’ll call them back. Not back on the number they called me from but from a number I know belongs to the company they claim to be representing.
A couple of years back this tactic saved me a lot of grief when I got a spam email that I took to be from GoDaddy. I nearly clicked on the link provided, then thought better of it and called their toll-free number. As soon as I spoke to customer service, I was told they had sent no such notification. Lord knows what would have happened had I clicked on the link. I also routinely receive calls purporting to be from Google. Guess what? Google has no outbound phone reps. Unless you buy ads from them, they’ll never call you. So, don’t fall into the name dropper game.
|Image courtesy USAF|
Phishing and Smishing – Most people have heard about phishing. That’s where spammers and scammers send you an email purportedly from a trusted friend or provider. Click on a link provided by either of the above and you’re in for a world of hurt. That’s because phishing links invariably install malware on your computer that can either give a hacker unfettered access to your computer or it can also allow them to install far more insidious software than can allow them to take control of your machine or lock it down with ransomware. Other than failing to fall into the trap, every web-enabled device you own needs to have at least two layers of anti-malware installed on it.
Smishing is phishing using text messages. Spammers harvest cellphone numbers from a myriad of sources online. Then they use these numbers to try to dupe you into installing software that gives them access to your smartphone. The easiest way to get you to fall for their clickbait is to text you with a notice from your cellphone provider telling you to click to upgrade your software or to offer you additional services for free. Again, I can’t point out too stringently that any link you click on is a potentially poisoned pill. The solution is to use your phone to call the provider to find out what’s what before it’s too late. Because the only effective way to put the brakes on spammers and scammers is to just say no.
Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance. To find out more about how you can save money on all your insurance needs, go to her site or fill out the form at right.