Robocalls: Your Number, Please

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Last Thursday saw 51 attorney generals, including those of all 50 states and DC, and thirteen phone companies – AT&T, Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Consolidated, Frontier, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Verizon, and Winstream – enter into an agreement to stop robocalls.

I understand these are a big problem in the US,  particularly for senior citizens. While visiting my mother, I’ve watched her field several such calls each day. The callers often claim to be from the IRS or Medicare and demand immediate attention. The local police force offers seminars explaining to people how to protect themselves from these cons. My Mom is already well up to speed on that score. She often makes it clear she knows when someone’s trying to scam her – such as the time she pointed out to the caller that the real IRS would be unlikely to ring anyone at 5:20 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.

Yet as will come as no great surprise to regular readers, the new robocall agreement is so weak as to be meaningless. Far be it for state regulators actually to try and regulate.

As Ars Technica reports in US phone carriers make empty, unenforceable promises to fight robocalls:

The top wireless carriers and home phone providers promised attorneys general from every state and the District of Columbia that they would offer free robocall blocking and take other steps to fight robocalls. But the agreement imposes no legally binding requirements on phone providers. “Failure to adhere to these principles is not in itself a basis for liability,” a disclaimer on the agreement notes.

Even if breaking the agreement was a basis for liability, there would be no deadline to comply. “Adherence to these principles may take time for the voice service providers to plan for and implement,” the disclaimer also said, while providing no specific timeline for the carriers to fulfill their promises.

Given that disclaimer, you’d think carriers actually agreed to make some major changes. But the agreement’s top promises are things the phone companies are already doing or in the process of rolling out.

Despite the Fact The Agreement is Weak and Unenforceable Doesn’t Stop the MSM From Pretending Otherwise

I note that telecoms companies are lauding the effort. Need I say more?

Over to the WSJ’s account, Large Telecoms, State Enforcers Make Pact to Combat Robocalls:

In statements Thursday, the companies praised the effort, which they said aligned with some of their previous public commitments.

“We remain committed to continuing to work with stakeholders at all levels of government and throughout the industry as we continue to fight this ongoing battle,” said a statement from Joan Marsh, executive vice president of regulatory and state external affairs for AT&T.

How About Some Actual Regulation? Please?

Rather than another virtue- signalling exercise, what’s needed is some actual regulation – as Ars Technica recognizes:

“Voluntary agreements are no substitute for enforceable rights,” Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars. “This is the sort of smokescreen designed to stop Congress from passing more effective legislation, like the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act passed by the House [and pending in the Senate]. With nothing to force carriers to meet deadlines, nothing to force carriers to upgrade once robocallers figure out how to outwit the new technological measures, and nothing to stop carriers from walking away if it gets too hard or too expensive, I wouldn’t declare ‘Mission Accomplished.'”

Phone companies a venerable history of sidestepping liability – see more on this below, in an easy to take comic vein. This tendency has only extended to other parts of the economy — and is intertwined with corporate actors assuming greater monopoly power. But now that there’s more nominal competition in the sector that when I was a teenager – back when Carter was President – means that the nominally restructured industry just avails itself of today’s techniques for avoiding legal liability.

Another Brief Meander through My Employment History in Service of Some Larger Points

The failure of state AGs to force telecoms companies to take concrete action to stop robocalls has sparked another brief meander through my employment history, to the summer of ’79, and my first sit-down summer job, as a telephone operator.

The summer of ’78 had been one of intellectual stimulation, when I was awarded a spot in a National Science Foundation Summer Student Training Program (NSF SSTP), offered by the school of textile engineering, at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I think these programs are long gone – a consequence IIRC of the extreme budget-cutting instituted by the Reagan administration (and more or less pursued by most administrations since).

But it was an idyll for me, an overachieving high school student, bored to tears with high school – and a harbinger of what would follow, beginning  with my matriculation at MIT in ’79. And in passing, I’ll note, I wasn’t the only one inspired by the short seven weeks of this NSF SSTP. Years later, lounging in a hot tub after a day’s skiing in San Moritz, I found myself in the midst of several scientists from CERN. To a person, all had participated in an NSF SSTP, to which each gave at least some credit for motivating him or herself to study science. (At that time, I was on a fellowship from what was then called the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva to study the influence of business elites on shaping US trade policy, and I, along with lots of other Swiss university students, as well as the scientists from CERN, was enjoying staying at Swiss resort, in shoulder season, at bargain rates. In Switzerland, the pleasure of skiing isn’t  limited to  elites – at least not in those days, despite what now goes on in Davos every February.)

Back to the issue at hand. Whereas the summer of ’78 was one of intellectual awakening, by contrast, the summer of ’79 was all about earning money. I was off to MIT in the fall, and I wanted to sock away as much cash as possible before starting school. And so I was lucky to land this summer gig as a telephone operator, at a union rate of minimum wage plus $1 per hour – a pretty good wage in my small NJ town, especially as I was still kipping at my family home and could bank most of what I earned.

But whereas I thought all I was doing that summer was merely earning money, what I didn’t realize then was I was also absorbing some lessons, equally as important and long-lasting as the ones I learned at Georgia Tech.

What were some of these lessons?

First, never trust the phone company. Now, this was in the last stages of Ma Bell’s market dominance. Later in this post, we’ll have a bit of fun remembering what those years were like, using as a tour guide through those dark ages – “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there “ – Ernestine, Lily Tomlin’s Ma Bell operator, to remind us that for things to stay the same, they needed to change.

But I never worked for Ma Bell. We lived in one of the minuscule pockets not served by AT & T  but where the local carrier, United Telephone, was allowed to survive, so that Bell could pretend it didn’t in fact completely dominate the US  market. United Telephone was a terrible carrier in terms of the quality of telephone service they provided.

I attended my first union meeting, an assembly during which the membership debated whether to call  a strike. I can’t actually remember whether they did or not. If so, it was very short-lived, a matter of hours, not days, before the company and membership came to agreement. It was clear that there were two camps, management and labor. And that your manager wasn’t your friend.

More on that point: the supervisors had the means to monitor any activity on your switchboard. And they did. This had bad sides:  making sure you didn’t sneak in personal calls, even a quick call to Mom during a slow stint, letting her know when you might be heading home, and whether she needed me to pick up anything at the grocery store. But it also had positives: one operator consistently monitored her boyfriend’s line, but had to make sure she didn’t attempt any such shenanigans when certain supervisors were on duty.

But supervisors weren’t always paying attention, and Iearned it was at that time virtually impossible to maintain privacy from the telephone company. I’m not here addressing legal eavesdropping:  wiretapping.  But operators could – and did – often listen in on calls. And there was no safeguard other than sporadic monitoring by their supervisors to prevent that.

This all being said, the telephone company – even sad little United – was an integral part of the community, and took its community obligations seriously. Perhaps this was a phenomenon unique to living in a small town. But in those days, I learned that many people, when faced with a problem, dialed zero for the operator, and expected her — and incidentally, at that time we were all women – to solve the problem. United made clear that was what they expected its operators to do: it wasn’t about to leave us off the hook.

So, when a call came in, I would answer, “Your number, please?” And then we would go from there. Sometimes, it was matter of helping clear a line left off the hook. Others, it was a matter of following the correct procedure to cut into a long-winded call when the person calling  had an urgent need to break through and reach the party. Occasionally, it was necessary to muster emergency services – the fire department, an ambulance,

And then there were the uncategorizable calls: I realized I’d made my operatorial bones when someone called the operator to ask what to do when a snake was hanging out on hisfront porch, . Without missing a beat, I connected him to Fred Space, owner of Space Farms, the local game park. I held the call on my switchboard position during the next twenty minutes as the problem was discussed and finally resolved. I didn’t ask how. Don’t know whether the snake survived, but am reasonably sure the caller avoided a potentially dangerous encounter.

Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

Those of us of a certain age will remember Ernestine. I realize the phone universe has shifted a bit since the days Lily Tomlin created her iconic Ma Bell operator.

For some laughs, I offer up a couple of clips. And a reminder that an omnipotent telecoms presence – and crapified customer service – are not recent phenomenon. One running gag is that the ‘phone company knows everything and listens in all the time.

Here, Ernestine rings up J. Edgar Hoover and offers him ‘phone company intercepts.

Another classic: Ernestine berates a customer for not paying a bill, referring to the ample privileged financial information to which she has access: bank balance, assets, income tax return.

And: “Now, Mr. Veedal, I want you to understand something, we are not subject to city, state, or federal regulations. We are omnipotent. Omnipotent. That’s potent with an omni in front of it.”

Plus ça change.

What Is to Be Done?

I’m not herein trying to endorse an omnipotent telecoms sector.  Now, years after Ernestine made her calls, government and telecoms companies hoover up more info and data than she and J. Edgar ever imagined. I guess I just don’t believe present telecoms providers don’t have the ability to figure out who’s making robocalls – and shut them down. Or at least shut some of them down. A little liability might go a long way in figuring out how to solve this problem.

Until that happens, my mother will continue to have her day interrupted by the “IRS”, and “Medicare”, and lots of other scamsters who operate with impunity because the regulators, state and federal, aren’t doing their jobs.

Over to Congress. Is anyone listening?

*****
A bonus video: Ernestine calls Gore Vidal.

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57 comments

    1. Norge

      The summer of ‘60 the NSF sent me to Cornell University, where I met the woman to whom I’ve been married for almost 53 years. Truly a life changing educational opportunity.

      Reply
    2. Mark H

      One partial solution is to pass the badly named Stopping Bad Robocalls Act (are there any “good robocalls”?) and also increase the statutory damages for a private right of action (PROA) from $500 to $1,000 or better yet, $1,500 per call per violation of Title 47 U.S.C. § 227: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The $500 damage was set in 1991 and with inflation, it’d be close to $1,000 today. Congress set up the TCPA, which the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act will amend, to encourage private citizens, not government entities, to enforce the law by taking telemarketing scofflaws to small claims court. The TCPA works as a bounty system. As Justice Breyer noted in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Mims v. Arrow Financial Services, LLC, “The Congress seemed to want to have ordinary people be able to go into small claims court in a State and bring an action for $500 because they were pestered by these salesmen on the phone in violation of the Act.” That means you personally can take some entity or person who called you into court and get a judge to assess a fine of $500 per illegal call, or $1,500 per illegal call if the judge believes the violation was “knowing or willful.”

      I know non-attorney pro se plaintiffs who pursue TCPA suits and make more than $100,000 per year. But increasing the fine from a minimum $500 per call to a minimum $1,000 per call will make this much more lucrative and will definitely increase the pool of private parties who pursue these suits.

      Why is this important? Simply because the U.S. government rarely prosecutes illegal telemarketers. Don’t believe me? Here’s the start of recent article in Ars Techna, rehashing an article from the Wall Street Journal:

      The Federal Communications Commission has issued $208.4 million in fines against robocallers since 2015, but the commission has collected only $6,790 of that amount. That’s because the FCC lacks authority to enforce the penalties, according to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal.

      Congress simply has not given the FCC the authority and resources to prosecute telemarketers. The FTC is better, but even they only go after the worst of the worst offenders: the worst one-tenth of 1% of telemarketers. To prosecute the rest, Congress gave us the TCPA so you can personally enforce the law. This wasn’t a great idea, but as I mentioned, it’s lucrative for the few pro se plaintiffs who have figured out how to enforce the TCPA via a private suit.

      Reply
  1. Clive

    What a great post ! US telecoms is a real special hobby / interest of mine. Not so much post-divestiture but pre-, especially in regards to “long lines” – AT&T’s big bucks “glamour” division which was the first really big-scale foray of tech into the national psyche (and the nation’s homes) and one that Ma Bell, of course, ran as a vertically integrated service – which sadly led to their anti-trust demerger and every ill that stemmed from that. A remarkable example of engineering excellence (long lines, that is), and a treasure trove of how to do things properly, compared to today’s crapification.

    You were lucky, or unlucky, depending on your perspective, to have your town in a little island of telephony outside of Ma Bell’s tentacle-like reach, that really was a rarity. If I recall correctly, Ma Bell had to tolerate these and be ultra-careful about competition infringements.

    From that day to this, I’m (perhaps in a way which proponents find hard to understand, but I’ll explain, or I hope I will) very reluctant to side with using anti-trust laws and anti-monopoly court cases to pursue political aims against big corporations. Yes, big corporations can be evil and when they are bad, they’re very, very bad. But I’m not convinced that breaking up of AT&T was, in the long term, good for consumers, good for progressives and socialists or good for the law / government. Your (readers’) mileage may vary, of course, and I do get the argument on the other side.

    All this, and Lily Tomlin, too! The woman should be canonised. Why don’t you guys have an honours system? Lily should be, as a minimum, made a Dame. Preferably a Baroness.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      1. On the other hand, when I lived in JoBurg, if you wanted a phone it was a 2 year wait for installation.

      2. If you rented a house with a phone YOU PAID THE BILL even when the subscriber’s name was Mr Neanderthal (Mynheer Neanderthal if it was an Afrikaaner) . If you tried to transfer the service to yourself, see (1) above.

      3. International calls cost 2.4 cents per second. It’s almost impossible to complete a phone call in under 1 minute.

      When I arrived in the US, I got a phone installed the day after moving into a house.

      Reply
    2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Agreed re Lily Tomlin – and I want to note here, as I couldn’t figure out how to squeeze this fact into my post, that in 1970 she turned down AT&T’s $500,000 offer to appear as Ernestine in a tv commercial, saying that to do so would compromise her artistic integrity. $500,000 was serious dosh in 1970.

      Reply
    3. LeslieC

      Agreed. My father worked for bell on local level as management. When union strike he went in and worked switchboard. Cafeteria was for all, no special dining room. Rates subject utilities board approval-cost plus some profit. He believed that it was a public good, was ethical (I suspect why he didn’t get bumped up and why he didn’t care) Did not make huge salary in contrast to private sector he could have entered. Was glad to have gotten out before break up. Wasn’t perfect but I’m not sure wasn’t better than now I had a phone from the 1970s that still was in perfect working order that I gave to a Florida friend for use after hurricanes. Had to upgrade an iPhone that worked because software not supported. Only about 4 years old.

      Reply
  2. epynonymous

    Quick bit of phone history in America. Not really related, but I enjoyed the old-timey phone stories.

    “the party line”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party_line_(telephony)

    Just like having multiple phones on a line in a single household, the households would share a single phone line.

    Therefore, they could eavesdrop on each other… and anyone old enough could tell the difference in audio quality, ambient noise, and the tell-tale click if someone were eavesdropping… If I’m not mistaken, people on the same line could hear each other talking without charge, so local lovebirds could arrange a time to speak and not even make the others phone ring? Not so sure on that part though.

    I either heard about it here some years ago, or looking into this Hank Williams Sr. song. “Mind Your Own Business.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSeuDDzjIB8

    Reply
    1. Left in Wisconsin

      My spouse grew up in small town Wisconsin with a party line (shared with next door neighbors) into the 1970s.

      Reply
      1. lyman alpha blob

        We had the same in rural VT when I was a kid in the 70s. Our calls were one long ring and the other party was two short ones. I remember my parents directing us not to pick up if we heard the two short, but what 6 year old could help themself at least once in a while?

        Reply
    2. Steven A

      Growing up in Iowa in the 50s, I would spend a few weeks each summer on the farm with some relatives. They had a phone with a hand crank that you spun to ring the operator in town and told her whom you wanted to call. You never gave a number, just a name. She knew everybody. If you wanted to call any other nearby town, none of them more than 7 or 8 miles away, it was a toll call. Yes, it was a party line.

      Reply
  3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Is this just a problem here in the US, or does it also happen all over the world?

    And if the latter, what actions have been taken?

    Reply
        1. Susan the other`

          What we need is a nifty digital delay and forwarding app that takes every “out of area” call and sends it on to the last “out of area” connection. Before it even rings. So we give em what they deserve on a real-time basis. Now that would prolly make some clever person lotsa money. And even if it isn’t that good an idea, at least it would screw up their ability to communicate.

          Reply
    1. Ook

      In Singapore I get an average of one robocall every few weeks, so this is not an unsolvable problem. When I lived in the US, it was so bad I just stopped using the landline.

      Reply
      1. Math is Your Friend

        At this point the only phone I normally answer is the one on my desk at work, unless I recognize the number.

        The home line and cell phones are otherwise ignored.

        Given that internet based phone systems are widespread in homes and businesses, and that those systems have access to the protocols that implement the equivalent of SS7 signalling – the control systems that handle identification and control of calls, and other services and related tasks not involved in the basic ‘talking on the phone’ sort of content.

        When first introduced, the SS7 protocol eliminated blue box phone hacking, by moving the control protocols ‘out of band’ – OOB – to a separate part of the network that subscribers could not contact.

        But the fundmental differences in VOIP call technology erases the separation between the call and the OOB controls, which is why a malicious VOIP system can fake any number it wants.

        Bear in mind, also, that routing over the internet is dynamic and flexible and there is no easy way of telling where a stream of packets really came from.

        I don’t know how that separation can be reinstated without breaking all the legitimate VOIP systems.

        It may not be as impossible as breaking encryption for self appointed ‘white hats’ while keeping out the other self appointed ‘white hats’ and the grey, black, and brown crew as well, but a solid solution does not readily present itself.

        Reply
    2. fajensen

      And if the latter, what actions have been taken?

      In Sweden, the most effective solution is to not connect anything to the landline and use a pay-as-you-go SIM card for the mobile because then your name will not be registered in any databases and you cannot be ‘targeted’.

      My wife got a subscription where her name is liked and she gets tonnes of scam-calls. I get the occasional one on the work phone. The regime here is so neoliberal that a verbal agreement made over the phone is actually legally binding so the rule is that one NEVER confirms anything over the phone if one does not know the caller – the telemarketing scum are known to edit their recordings and to prey on elderly and/or disabled persons, easily identifiable from publicly accessible databases – just Google any Swedish address and see!

      PS,
      I think that several stupid things and nasty attitudes we slander the USA over was imported with the Swedish migrants!

      Reply
  4. Cal2

    Say “Hello” one time only. If silence, hang up, The robot only begins the sales spiel after the second “Hello.”.

    If a human calls, have fun with them.
    “Hello, can I talk to X?”
    “My good man, in civilized society, callers identify them self, why haven’t you?
    Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
    or
    “Please connect me to a native speaker of English.”
    Another fun one, “Jeesh, this software is really getting realistic!” no matter what they say.

    If a home improvement hustler, do everyone a favor, waste their time and gas. Click through and actually make an appointment at the worst possible time for rush hour traffic–to a fake address at a vacant lot down the street, or the most distant and inaccessible place in the county.
    Sometimes they call back half an hour before scheduled arrival. “Sure, come on by, we’re waiting.” When they* call from some mountaintop, then tell them you are on the DNC list and they really should dump the robocallers.
    Then block their number. If the percentage of leads turn out to be wild goose chases, the robocallers will get fired.

    *Sears Home Improvement Center three times, Dave’s Duct Cleaning day another time.

    Reply
    1. Math is Your Friend

      The ones I get start at the first ‘hello’, quite promptly. Some will start when presented with silence, others hang up.

      The hotel chains and airlines calling to give me stuff are usual fare, but the one from ‘my bank’ (a bank I have never dealt with) offering me a credit cart at 0.9% annual interest for life was even more ‘tempting’. I really can’t tell you what the calls in Chinese offered me.

      I managed to run the caller and his supervisor around in circles for about 30 minutes while doling out incorrect information about my existing card which was duly parroted back to me ten minutes later to convince me the already had my full account information in front of them.

      Somehow we never managed to settle on a protocol to securely validate my card number.

      Oh well.

      All the calling numbers are spoofed and semi-random, so call blocking does not work.

      Often the first five or six digits are the same as the area code and number of the phone that is ringing, in order to make it look familiar.

      They went to 5 digits when too many people stopped answering calls with the same 6 leading digits as the target phone.

      Reply
      1. Cal2

        I like your style with the CC numbers. Hook them with partial information and waste their time. Speaker phone while doing laundry is great for that.

        “All the calling numbers are spoofed and semi-random, so call blocking does not work.”
        It does work with the end contractor sitting in his pickup truck who might get mad and phone harass you. That’s his personal phone and there’s no number spoofing there.

        The saddest part of this is that often with the medical device hucksters, if one clicks through from the robocall, you’re connected to someone in America wearing a headset who had to buy a “client service kit” and special phone app to try and sell you some useless piece of Chinese crap for a small commission.

        Had a conversation with a weary-voiced old woman sitting in a trailer in Tennessee doing just that. I convinced one why she should support Bernie and encouraged her to read Naked Capitalism instead of online basketball scores. Society didn’t treat this member of “The Greatest Generation” very well. Her husband crippled from war wounds, her son Iraq’ed, this is what she was left with in our modern American economy. Sent her a hundred dollar bill at Christmas in-leu of the gift to the overseas orphanage.

        Reply
  5. Off The Street

    In the Street household, we find that many call spammers are identifiable via caller ID. Our carrier shows a V in front of the area code and number on those calls, none of which is from a party that interests us. We let those go to voicemail where they usually don’t bother leaving a reply. We also note the frequent interrupters and report them to the FCC on their DoNotCall.gov website. That may not get the quick results we’d like but amuses us and makes us feel that we’ve done something to fight against the tides of crapification and mediocrity of life. That something is setting the bar pretty low, even defining desperation, boredom or whatever downwards.

    In those rare instances when we answer the phone, we find out quickly which calls are from pests. When there is an extended period after our initial Hello, that is one clue. Another big one is hearing the voices of those other boilerroom callers in the background. Some interpid callers leave their canned messages about Microsoft data usage, IRS litigation, Medicare, utility rates, solar panels or the ever-popular Diane with her offer of carpet cleaning services. Diane gets around as her phone numbers change routinely. She is one busy carpet cleaner, or something.

    Reply
    1. lyman alpha blob

      Regarding reporting the numbers, I’m not sure how effective that is. I had one bothering me a few years ago and so decided to screw with them and called them back trying to tie up their line. Called once to chew them out and they hung up after a little bit. They hung up quicker the 2nd time. The third time I called a got the “number out of service” message, thwarting my own small attempt to stem the tides of mediocrity,

      My guess is the scammers must have many lines at their disposal for both sending and receiving calls, and they also have some way to hide the real number they are calling from – what shows up on your caller ID most likely isn’t accurate.

      Reply
      1. fajensen

        Correct. The scammers use a Media Gateway to connect to the telecom network via VOIP (Voice Over IP) and a large block of local numbers, which they rent from one of the local telecom providers, assigned to the Media Gateway to make it look ‘local’ to Call-ID and make blocking harder.

        The telecom network runs on an ancient set of protocols called SS7. These do not allow for filtering and doesn’t provide security in any form because back when we were riding dinosaurs everything in the telecom networks was trusted and controlled by very few companies so physical access was ‘enough’ security.

        Then telecoms were ‘opened up for competition’ and businesses were given the rights to connect their stuff to the SS7 networks, the problem remaing is that not all business people are nice people and that not all businesses are located in a place where their activities are illegal, but, SS7 cannot discriminate!

        SS7 was never designed for more than cutting off an entire region, perhaps.

        The scammers themselves can physically be anywhere in the world, Spain and Malta are popular locations. Businesses who advertise for young native speakers that would presumably be tempted by a ‘stint in the sun’ are usually doing telemarketing.

        Reply
  6. Oh

    It looks like Comcast is selling my cell phone no. Ever since I signed up for their cell service that they launched with Verizon, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from unknown numbers which never happened before on the same phone no. when I was with AT&T and other cell carriers. I never answer calls from unknown numbers but some these callers leave a voice mail, such as they are calling from the Social security Admin or some loan company or it’s a robo call asking me to press 1 or whatever the option is. I wonder if other people have been subject to these kinds of calls after signing up to Infinity Mobile?

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      No need for the Robo-Callers to bother with the complexity of KNOWING numbers. They call them all.

      At $0.1 per call successful call, (an answer), and no cost from failed calls (no such number, ring no answer), there a lot of revenue in it for the Telephone Companies.

      Reply
  7. Jon S

    The key to all of these robocalls is that they use voice-over-IP and appear to originate from a fake telephone number. The fake originating number makes it extremely difficult to catch the perpetrator. The problem is that software can generate and put on the line fake telephone numbers. The call gets to you because as you connect to a tower, the tower equipment essentially updates a giant, shared database with the tower your connected to, and that changes as you move around. Your phone of course shows the fake originating phone number.

    The solution to this problem is for the carrier to look up the originating number of each call to ensure they are valid telephone numbers. This is no harder, easier actually, than trying to search a database for the cell tower to which your telephone number is currently connected.

    If no one owns the number, the carrier should simply drop the call. This will force a personal or corporate name to be associated with each telephone number. Since each carrier can be responsible for all of the country’s telephone numbers, you have a person or company you can sue.

    If you want to get fancy add a “hang-up and report” button on phone apps. Hit it and the originating number is automatically reported to the FCC for action.

    It is all a little bit more complicated than this, but honestly, not much. Of course, I’ve always considered AT&T to be the world’s largest legal firm that also happens to have a telecom subsidiary. What is stopping this from happening is either someone at the telecoms is making a lot of money, or the CEOs don’t trust the technology guys. My guess is both.

    Reply
    1. John Zelnicker

      @Jon S
      August 27, 2019 at 3:36 pm
      ——-

      Good information, thank you.

      About the owner of the originating number, I have received robocalls with my own number showing as the caller ID. Since that number is owned by a real person, how will your solution work in that case. I have also received calls from people where my number was used on the caller ID, although I didn’t make the call.

      If the telecoms can address these cases then my comment below was correct. They are being disingenuous, at best.

      Reply
      1. BoulderMike

        If “calling number” = “called number”, drop call, else go to next line of code;
        is number associated with a valid owner

        In fact, it should do the second line of code first and just execute the first line

        Reply
      2. Steven A

        I get calls from the “credit card services” folks with my bank’s (Chase) customer service number showing in the caller ID!

        Reply
    2. Math is Your Friend

      Interesting suggestions, but they won’t work.

      All the numbers will be spoofed, and these things use random target phone numbers, and quasi-random fake originating numbers.

      These calls can be injected into the internet anywhere in the world, and because there is no pattern to the calling (random, probably within area code or country code) there is no way to identify fake calls – every one uses a different fake source number and a different target number… and perhaps a different IP address.

      If the call is converted at some point to a phone network call, that information may be insulated against detection.

      All the above doesn’t even require the caller to subvert any protocols or hack any networks – it can all be put together from standard communications gear and software.

      Dropping calls ‘from’ unused numbers just means they will keep a record of what random calls reach a device, and then randomly select the ‘from’ number from that database of hundreds of millions of numbers.

      All that will do is raise the odds of a disgruntled callee ringing you up to complain about you calling them for a scam.

      I sometimes get the same call, three or four times in a day, on different phones in diverse area codes. The numeric separation of the numbers and the short interval between calls reinforces the conclusion that the numbers called are randomly selected in some way. I do suspect they are directed to certain geographical areas, if only to select the right mix of languages, which here seems to be English and Chinese, judging from the calls.

      Given the rapid spread of VOIP, even if you can tell a call comes from a VOIP system, this does not indicate a fake call.

      Both my desk phone* at work, and my home ‘landline’ phone are VOIP systems, as are most of the home phones of the people I know.

      Every area here now has two telephone companies competing, one using copper or fibre to the home, which may be VOIP, and the cable company, whose phones are all VOIP systems. Where I live, those two are Bell and Rogers, both massive communications companies trying to sell you a combined package of phone, cell, internet, and tv/movie services. Both of them would be greatly upset at any suggestion to restrict or even criticize VOIP

      * it is really, really annoying to have your phone reboot in the middle of a call… a work problem, thankfully rare. Doesn’t seem to happen with the home ‘landline’, which can follow me around when I travel. All it needs is an internet connection.

      Reply
  8. Synoia

    “Answer” the phone and say nothing (equivalent to picking up the phone and not greeting the caller).

    If it a human calling party they will speak. If a robocall, the computer listens for the called party to speak, and then connect the call to a person.

    Reply
  9. pretzelattack

    i constantly get calls where there is nobody there; i don’t know where the profit in this is, but it is quite annoying. then there are the amanda from apple (your apple computer has been taken over by malware but we can help, etc.) irs scam calls. at least there i see how somebody could profit.

    Reply
    1. Adam1

      It’s probably an autodialer. It’s a good way to quick tell if you’re being robo called too. The autodialer is calling and calling and calling… and when you pick-up it hands the line off to an agent. That hand-off is the short pause. If there is enough latency or if the call center is busy that pause can get long. Also, I hear they have a new feature that will listen for “Hello” before handing off to the agent assuming answering another way is just a voice mail machine picking up. If you don’t answer in the standard fashion (which I’ve been told is a good trick) they drop the call and move on.

      Personally, I just let everything go to voice mail if it’s not in my contact list already.

      Reply
      1. pretzelattack

        i pick up and say hello, there is often a short pause then it hangs up–there’s no handoff to a human. there’s some kind of scam there, i just don’t know what it it.

        Reply
    2. fajensen

      Sometimes the scam is that they want you to call back and the number you call is routed to will be one of those ‘premium services’ where you will pay an extortionate rate per minute, like a phone-sex line, without the sex.

      Reply
  10. Arizona Slim

    The robocalls that really crack me up are the ones about the car warranty that is about to expire. Talk about poorly targeted calls. Because I have never owned a car.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Yes, but sometimes the scam is more insidious. My Mom said she received a call once, during which the caller referred to her by the nickname for Grandma her grandchildren use, and purporting to be from her grandchild – “Catsmeat”- obviously not the real name, but the caller used a real name of one of her grandchildren. She did a double take at the call, but knew it was bogus, and asked the caller to confirm location – which was Chicago. No family live there. And even if she’d thought it was real, she’d never part with financial info over the ‘phone, but would have instead contacted Catsmeat’s parents.

      Reply
    2. EoH

      Much like the scam calls from “Social Security.” These proclaim that your account – and any payments owing to you – has been suspended. The voice is pure ex-police officer, bounty hunter, drill instructor. (It couldn’t be Lee Ermey, he’s gone, but Dale Dye is still kicking.)

      The inference is that it is a law enforcement call, to which you better respond quickly. “Press 1,” is supposed to let you do that, but lord knows where it sends your call. How does that work from a recorded message, I wonder. To coin a phrase, never mind.

      Reply
  11. barrisj

    Thirty blocked-calls option on our landline base unit, 25 blocked-call options via Digital Voice, and use of NoMoRobo have collectively eliminated a huge no. of daily unwanted calls. Always have used call-screening, and it does appear that when the robotic call app senses a recorded message, it rings off. My wife’s mobile only gets a vanishingly small fraction of robocalls as does the landline, interestingly enough.
    BTW, more and more of the blocked calls have an international country code from each of several Eastern European countries, Hungary in particular.
    FCC “no-call” listing is a joke.

    Reply
  12. BlueStater

    For a middling-to-good robocall blocker I can recommend the CPR CallBlocker V5000 (I think they have a more recent version now). It comes with a database of some amount of numbers (I forget how many now, and probably this isn’t relevant for the current generation of robocriminals) and keeps track of up to 1500 numbers that one “blocks” (satisfyingly, with a big red button) as they come in.

    Not perfect by any means, but it reduced our roboload from 20-25 calls a day to, on average, 1-2.

    Reply
  13. John Zelnicker

    Great post, Jerri-Lynn.

    Robocalls are one of the great annoyances of modern life, and I think the telecoms are being disingenuous in saying it’s difficult to stop. It seems to me that there must be a way to detect hundreds or thousands of calls coming out of the same location at the same time. I suspect they can also tell if there is a computer or a microphone at the source of the call.

    I do want to emphasize a point you made. The IRS will never call someone unless they are returning a call from a taxpayer. They also never ask for personal information (they already have it), and they never threaten collection or litigation by phone.

    Reply
  14. PrairieRose

    If I don’t recognize the number, I don’t pick up. When I’m feeling frisky, I’ll answer by saying, “Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, criminal complaints division.”

    Reply
    1. J7915

      My proposal is to give a phone number an average #of free calls, and then charge $0.05 per. I know my household can manage with 10 calls per day. Companies would be able to get larger quotas, based on historic usage.

      Foreign countries that play the system, 800s etc will simply be charged or cut off. The robo boys can’t survive on big charges and the peace and quiet would be worth it.

      Why not mandate a phone service that is in fact like the business systems? “If you know the extension dial it now”, if not the call goes into the bit bucket, add a alphabetic pass code, and recognition register of accepted known callers numbers through caller ID. So parents can be reached etc.

      Reply
    2. J7915

      Problem is that there are impotant calls from unknown numbers. Daughter on highway from here to 700 miles away, mother in nursing home, they hide their number at times.

      Reply
  15. Michael Fiorillo

    Thanks for the Lily Tomlin clips. The last one with Gore Vidal is an interesting marker for social change (or devolution, if you’re so inclined) since it presupposed a level of literacy and knowledge of current events on the part of a mass audience that would be unthinkable today.

    Reply
  16. Lupemax

    thank you so much for this posting, especially the links to Ernestine. Lily Tomlin is indeed a gem. I especially highly recommend one of her recent films “Grandma.” My daughter enjoyed it as well as my granddaughter.
    I am sad to hear that nothing will come of all those pols, er attorneys general, getting together to “help” we the people avoid the bombardment of nonsense on our phones by those greedy telecoms. Isn’t that always the way these days, sadly so uninspiring.

    Reply
    1. J7915

      Sorry I commented earlier on charging for large # of call. Turn the greed of the telcoms to advantage, package deals, the telcoms can regulate # of calls and duration. Got cut off once for unusall long call, forgot to have cousin call back on her very cheap contract from Germany to NYC, 78 MIN $US 220.00. And then Verizon gave me fits to turn long distance back on.

      Reply
  17. sierra7

    Only have a land-line; unlisted number for decades. Not really bothered by robo-calls. If I don’t recognize the number calling I don’t pick up.
    I do recall vividly the “party lines”…lived in SF at the time………also live operators…so I’m old!!

    Reply
  18. sd

    I didn’t see this mentioned. I’ve started to have a problem with Chinese robocalls. At least, it sounds like Chinese. No idea what’s being said, sometimes has music in the background like it might be an advertisement for something.

    Reply
  19. Frank

    The only sure way to avoid robocalls is to not answer any calls from numbers you do not recognize. Have a answering machine, if the call is important the caller will leave a message

    Reply
  20. earlofhuntingdon

    “Voluntary agreements,” like “self-regulation,” “airline food,” and “military intelligence,” is among the great oxymorons.

    Reply
  21. Anarcissie

    Some have asked where the profit is in calls that are silent, the wrong language, the wrong subject, and so on. Remember that advertising has to sell only one thing: itself, to the person who pays for it. This principle explains most robocalls, spam, billboards, and much other advertising as well — they only have to bring about that one sale.

    My Android phone sends any call not on my contacts list to voicemail. For most junk calling, this does the trick, although I have gotten some elaborate messages there in Mandarin (I think). The phone also provides that if a second call from the same number comes in in a short time, the phone will ring, so a supposed emergency call could get through.

    Reply
  22. S Haust

    I know it is a couple of days after this piece ran but I have a simple point to make anyway.

    Also, I have scanned through other comments and see a few of them touching on my point
    which is – money. I may be wrong but it seems nobody gets directly to the fact
    that the phone companies are making lots of cash on the situation. They are getting paid.

    I worked in telecommunications for an entire career and although I wasn’t in the financial
    end of it, I did become aware of a few things. Here’s the crux of it. All the phone companies
    own and manage a large infrastructure: wires, switches. towers, exchanges, etc., etc.

    Does anyone seriously believe that an outfit the size of ATT or Verizon is actually allowing
    such a large proportion of their plant to be used without getting paid for it. They are getting paid.
    A lot and that’s the real reason why they don’t want it stopped. They know where the calls
    are coming from. They know who it is. They could put an immediate end to it but the revenue
    stream would also end. The telephone companies are not innocent victims or bystanders.
    They are part of the robocall business and when they say they are not, they are liars.

    Reply

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