Robocalls on the rise: What you should know

Smartphone owners are increasingly accustomed to picking up their phones and hearing recorded voices on the other end, meaning they've received robocalls.

Often, the recordings are threatening and mention taking action to avoid arrests or financial penalties. A human representative never comes into the equation unless the person receiving the call wants further information, usually by pressing a button on the phone's touchscreen.

Millions of Robocalls Per Day

YouMail, a call-blocking app, keeps a running monthly total of robocalls, and its statistics are staggering. In November 2018, the U.S. total was 169.6 million, or more than seven million per hour, with an average of more than 15 per person. Plus, a separate study from First Orion predicts robocalls will account for 44.6 percent of all mobile traffic by early 2019.

It's also likely that the increase is even more apparent and bothersome because, unlike landline phones that people only used to make calls, smartphones let people do an assortment of other things.

They can connect with friends via text message or communication apps, browse the internet, listen to or watch streaming media and play games. That versatility means many of them don't use their phones to make calls as often as they did before smartphones existed.

Some Robocalls Come From Numbers That Seem Familiar

Phone scammers frequently use a number-spoofing tactic where the first six digits of the number match the call recipient's area, making it appear local. That technique helped cause people to lose an average of $430 per phone scam in 2017. The people behind robocalls are also relying on the method, which is often called neighbor spoofing.

The Do Not Call Registry Doesn't Function Effectively

When people get contacted by robocalls despite being on the Do Not Call Registry, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can prosecute the offenders. Unfortunately, people are disheartened and complain that the Do Not Call Registry isn't preventing these calls. That's because the companies executing robocalls are not afraid of government fines.

Robocall operations are typically extremely cheap to set up due to low-cost software and the fact that they could function out of a small call center or even a person's home, provided there are a couple people on hand to answer calls from those who want to learn more after the robocall prompts.

In contrast, traditional cold calling is a tactic that's preferred and more ethical compared to robocalls. Seasoned telemarketing professionals follow established best practices intended to help them meet quotas without unethically bothering their prospective contacts. For example, a telemarketer may begin the conversation by asking the person if they have a few minutes to talk, but robocalls just barge in.

Robocalls also target the phones of people in large geographic areas without requiring substantial investment. The methods representatives use are so effective that they figure it's worth risking a potential FTC fine. Since robocalls spoof numbers, they can be notoriously hard to track down, which boosts robocall businesses' confidence even more.

Interruptions to Life and Work

Fed-up consumers are disgruntled by how the robocalls break into their activities at home and work. They discuss how they wake them up or interfere with their focus at work. A hand surgeon quoted in an article from The New York Times gets so many robocalls similar to his area code that he's stopped answering them.

However, one "suspicious" call was from a doctor who wanted the surgeon to reattach a thumb for a patient. The expectation of a legitimate call being a robocall delayed the treatment of that person. Other people recommend that the people they want to hear from only contact them on their landlines, if they still have them. Then, it becomes theoretically easier to assume that a call coming through on a smartphone is probably a robocall.

State Representatives and Phone Companies Are Stepping Up

In October 2018, 35 state attorneys general issued a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging the government body to make stronger rules about the calls telecommunications companies can stop.

In November 2017, the FCC ruled that phone companies can block calls that apparently come from numbers that don't or can't make outgoing calls.

But the state attorneys general want the FTC to allow phone company blocking of certain categories of calls, too, including spoofed ones. Some phone companies offer branded caller ID services that detect potential robocalls. There are also more robust solutions in the works, but they are costly and could take years to roll out.

Robocalls May Not Go Away Anytime Soon

Since robocalls are so pervasive, it may not be possible to curb them promptly. But, the good news is that the bodies and individuals with the power to tighten enforcement are aware of the hassles they cause.

Image Credit: iQoncept / Shutterstock

Kayla Matthews is a senior writer at MakeUseOf and a freelance writer for Digital Trends. To read more from Kayla, visit her website productivitybytes.com.

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