Always Being Called: How We Can Shake Free from the Phone Scamming “Scourge”

By March 12, 2019Our Ideas

In the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, a motley group of salesmen compete over mythical “glengarry” leads, literal notecards with the names and phone numbers of easy marks for shady real estate investments. In the seminal scene, Alec Baldwin’s character excoriates the underperforming sales team and implores them to “ABC,” Always Be Closing.

Today’s telemarketers, with cheap and deceptive calling methods, can achieve a different version of ABC: Always Be Calling. And lately, it really does seem like someone always is calling your mobile phone.

America has been in a similar place with unwanted calls before. In 2003, a bipartisan legislation created a national “Do Not Call” list, which allowed consumers to sign on to a registry that barred telemarketers from calling their landlines.

And it worked: according to a 2009 Congressional study “72 percent of Americans had registered on the list, and 77 percent of those say that it made a large difference” in stopping unwanted calls.

However, the Do Not Call registry, which is still active, was created in an era before smartphones and when VoIP was just getting rolling. Today, there are new nefarious – and virtually free – techniques for reaching consumers by phone, including robocalls, spam calls and spoofed calls.

Spoofed calls are basically just faked phone numbers that encourage people to pick up calls. A subset of spoofed calls is “neighborhood spoofing,” a technique where the incoming call is spoofed to look like it’s coming from a person’s home area code.

For most, robocalls are an annoyance. You decline or ignore a call that you were probably going to send to voicemail anyway. But these calls can have a real impact on people who depend on calls for work or populations who are more susceptible to scammers.

First Orion, which provides Caller-ID and other services to wireless carriers, looked at 50 billion mobile phone calls and found some alarming trends. First Orion reported that scam calls skyrocketed from “3.7% of total calls in 2017 to 29.2% in 2018” and projected that “nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be fraudulent in 2019.”

The average cost to someone swindled by call scammers is around $700.  Overall, spam calls cost the U.S. economy $332 million a year, a number that is positioned to rise quickly if trends continue.

Much like earlier this millennium, spam calls have reached an inflection point, and powerful interests are starting to act. Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai has called for the end of robocalling, describing it as “the scourge of civilization.” Under pressure from the FCC, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) is developing a program called STIR SHAKEN, which would create a system of standards and protocols for authenticating calls.

Wireless carriers, which would prefer customers to have positive experiences on their phones, are offering caller ID and spam protection solutions but customer adoption has been very low. There are several different approaches to solving this problem both from a technical perspective and from a commercial perspective – and each wireless operator is handling it in a slightly different way.

STIR SHAKEN and other efforts by industry may have a positive impact on spamming calls, but it’s unlikely any one solution will eliminate this issue – at least not over the long term. With constantly evolving technology and so much money at stake for telemarketers, spammers will find ways around regulatory and industry roadblocks.

The effectiveness of industry-led solutions will ultimately determine the federal government’s approach. Congress or the FCC could decide to leave it up to the carriers to handle or be more prescriptive like they were back in 1993. One way or another, consumers can only hope there is a solution to Always Being Called.