Is there fi­nally some re­lief from an­noy­ing robo­calls? Scam­mers reach peo­ple us­ing au­to­di­alers

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

For Michael Rizzo, an­swer­ing the phone is too of­ten a waste of time. His Sports City Pizza Pub in Buf­falo, New York, de­pends on cus­tomers call­ing to order wings, pizza and potato skins. But much of the time, it’s an au­to­mated mes­sage push­ing a scam. “It’s get­ting to the point where it’s block­ing other call­ers from com­ing in,” the 24-year-old bar owner said. Help is com­ing, if slowly. Over the past year, prod­ded by the gov­ern­ment, cell­phones have added new tools to coun­ter­act un­wanted “robo­calls.” The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion has pro­posed let­ting phone com­pa­nies block more spam and is hop­ing to de­ter scam­mers with big fines. Ex­perts say these steps are not a cure-all, but they’re a good start.

Why is this hap­pen­ing?

The fed­eral and state “Do Not Call” lists are sup­posed to pro­tect peo­ple from un­wanted calls from tele­mar­keters. But scam­mers don’t care about break­ing the law. Scam­mers reach peo­ple cheaply and eas­ily us­ing “au­to­di­alers,” which spew out a large num­ber of calls au­to­mat­i­cally. It’s es­ti­mated that Amer­i­cans re­ceive tens of mil­lions of robo­calls every day. Not all of them are fraud­sters, of course. Phar­ma­cies send au­to­mated mes­sages about pre­scrip­tions be­ing filled.

But too of­ten, it’s this: you owe the IRS money; it’s Mi­crosoft call­ing to fix your com­puter; free cruises! And spam call­ers have tricky tech­nol­ogy that makes a phone’s caller ID dis­play a lo­cal or im­por­tant-look­ing caller, like the IRS. Crack­ing down on “spoofed” num­bers would make run­ning a scam more dif­fi­cult and save US con­sumers mil­lions of dol­lars, a group of state at­tor­neys gen­eral said in an FCC fil­ing.

What phone com­pa­nies are do­ing?

Phone com­pa­nies and in­de­pen­dent apps can screen or block un­wanted calls by check­ing them against data­bases of known prob­lem num­bers and an­a­lyz­ing sus­pi­cious be­hav­ior, like a num­ber that’s call­ing lots of peo­ple on Do Not Call lists. Wire­less car­ri­ers also have tools that flag in­com­ing calls with warn­ings like “scam likely,” but they aren’t avail­able on all phones, or to many pre­paid cus­tomers. The ver­sions from Ver­i­zon and Sprint cost ex­tra. A few An­droid phones, in­clud­ing Google’s Pixel, screen spam calls for free. Jen Var­gas, 39, a mul­ti­me­dia pro­ducer from Or­lando, Florida, said her AT&T app flags and blocks some fraud­u­lent calls to her cell­phone, but she’s given up with the lan­d­line.

“Very rarely do I pick up a call from a num­ber I don’t know,” Var­gas said. Apps in­clud­ing YouMail and No­morobo of­fer re­lief on home phones for free, with lim­i­ta­tions. With YouMail, your car­rier must al­low “con­di­tional call for­ward­ing,” which for­wards calls if a line is unan­swered or busy. No­morobo isn’t avail­able through all home phone providers and won’t work with older, cop­per-based land­lines. You can also buy gad­gets , some pretty clunky, that block calls on home phones. Ver­i­zon is also test­ing warn­ings about sus­pi­cious calls on a home phone’s caller ID dis­play.

Help from the gov­ern­ment

Phone com­pa­nies can al­ready block some calls that are be­ing faked. The FCC has pro­posed rules to for­mal­ize that prac­tice and per­mit them to block other calls they sus­pect are scams. That means Ver­i­zon can block a toll-free num­ber that ac­cepts calls for a bank but never ini­ti­ates a call. Car­ri­ers would also be able to block calls they know aren’t le­git­i­mate, like a num­ber with a 911 area code. The rules still need to be fi­nal­ized.

Mau­reen Ma­honey, a pub­lic pol­icy fel­low at the non­profit Con­sumers Union, said the devel­op­ment is “promis­ing,” but won’t pro­tect con­sumers from all un­wanted calls. For one thing, “Do Not Call” lists don’t ap­ply to cer­tain types of call­ers, such as debt col­lec­tors and po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. In ad­di­tion, Ma­honey said, the FCC rules would cover only faked num­bers. Not all robo­calls are spoofed. Con­sumers Union wants phone com­pa­nies to make call-block­ing tools avail­able to all con­sumers for free. In the longer term, the FCC sup­ports in­dus­try ef­forts to ver­ify that call­ers are re­ally who they say they are.

Per­haps one day, you’ll see a green check­mark on your smart­phone when the caller is le­git­i­mate. US Tele­com, the phone-com­pany lobby, says rolling this out could take a few years, but would prove pow­er­ful against robo­callers. The FCC is also seek­ing ways to stop an­noy­ing calls from dog­ging con­sumers when they change num­bers. To­day, if you sign up for Do Not Call but then get a new num­ber, a mar­keter may not know and could pester you on your new line.

Robo­callers aren’t go­ing away, said Aaron Foss of No­morobo, a call-block­ing ser­vice for cell­phones and home phones. “These guys are crim­i­nals and they’re go­ing to find their way around any sys­tem. But it’s our job to make sure we make it as dif­fi­cult for them as pos­si­ble.” There are com­mon-sense mea­sures for con­sumers to fol­low. Don’t an­swer the phone if you don’t rec­og­nize the num­ber. (Yes, this is im­prac­ti­cal on busi­ness phone lines, like Sports City’s.)

Hang up on un­wanted call­ers. Don’t talk to them or press any but­tons. If you en­gage with them, they might flag you as some­one who’s re­spon­sive and in­un­date you with more calls. Block the num­ber af­ter the call, if pos­si­ble. Use call-block­ing apps. If you have pri­vacy con­cerns, check the app’s pol­icy to see if it’s shar­ing your call or con­tacts data with mar­keters. Don’t give call­ers per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, like bank ac­count or So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers.—AP

What can you do?

FLORIDA: In this photo, Jen Var­gas looks at a call log dis­played via an AT&T app on her cell­phone at her home in Or­lando, Florida.—AP

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