An epi­demic of robo­calls on hold dur­ing pan­demic

Many call cen­ters closed or op­er­at­ing with fewer work­ers

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Tali Ar­bel

Have you been miss­ing some­thing amid the lock­downs and stay-at-home or­ders? No, not hu­man con­tact. Not even toi­let pa­per.

Robo­calls.

In­dus­try ex­perts say robo­calls are way down — scam calls as well as nag­ging from your credit-card com­pany to pay your bill. The coro­n­avirus pan­demic has in­flicted mil­lions of job losses, and scam­mers have not been im­mune.

YouMail, which of­fers a robo­call-block­ing ser­vice, says 2.9 bil­lion robo­calls were placed in April in the U.S., down from 4.1 bil­lion in March and 4.8 bil­lion in Fe­bru­ary. That’s a daily av­er­age of 97 mil­lion calls in April, down from 132 mil­lion in March and 166 mil­lion in April.

The main rea­son: many global call cen­ters have closed or are op­er­at­ing with fewer work­ers, said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici.

While it may be odd to think of scams be­ing run out of call cen­ters rather than a dark, creepy base­ment or a garage, that’s of­ten the case, par­tic­u­larly in coun­tries such as In­dia and the Philip­pines, ex­perts said.

Af­ter a lock­down or­der went into ef­fect in In­dia in late March, “we saw the vol­ume of calls ba­si­cally halve the next day,” Quilici said.

That means scam­mers will prob­a­bly be back in force once the call cen­ters come back on­line. Stepped-up en­force­ment from in­dus­try groups and the U.S. gov­ern­ment could nib­ble around the edges of those call vol­umes when the scam­mers are back, how­ever.

In re­cent months, fed­eral agen­cies have fo­cused on go­ing af­ter the small tele­com providers that were al­low­ing calls from COVID-19 scam­mers, cit­ing the ur­gency of the pan­demic.

And free block­ing tools that were al­ready in place on many peo­ple’s phones help con­sumers dodge unwanted calls, so it’s not clear how many have no­ticed the lower num­bers of scam and tele­mar­ket­ing calls in the past cou­ple months.

“What we do hear from con­sumers is call block­ing tools are ef­fec­tive in re­duc­ing a significan­t num­ber of robo­calls but some unwanted calls are go­ing to slip through,” said Mau­reen Mahoney, a pol­icy an­a­lyst with Con­sumer Re­ports.

Com­plaints about unwanted calls to the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion have been trend­ing down since late 2018, and dropped by more than half in March from the year be­fore, to 240,000. The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion gets many fewer com­plaints over­all but says those also fell 50% in March, to 10,000, and 60% in April, to 7,500.

“While re­ports of robo­calls are way down over­all, we’re now hear­ing about call­ers in­vok­ing the COVID-19 pan­demic to pre­tend to be from the gov­ern­ment, or mak­ing il­le­gal med­i­cal or health care pitches,” an FTC blog post de­clared in mid-April.

And Mahoney pre­dicts that calls will pick up again, and it won’t just be scam­mers back in ac­tion. With so many peo­ple out of work and be­hind on their bills, debt col­lec­tors will be bad­ger­ing them to pay soon enough, she said.

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