Everyone knows the feeling: You're waiting for an important phone call and, at last, your cellphone rings. But instead of the voice of a client or co-worker, you hear a recording announcing, "You've won a free cruise!"
The false promise of a free cruise is just one of many scams perpetuated by robocallers, and such nuisance calls have been on a sharp rise over the past few years.
Automated call-blocking software company YouMail has been tracking legal and illegal robocall traffic across the United States since 2015 with its Robocall Index, and in that first year the company found that 1 out of every 6 calls received in the United States was generated by a machine — a total of about 1 billion calls per month. That number soared to a record-breaking 5.23 billion calls in March of this year, with nearly 30 billion total calls so far in 2019.
While some of these calls are legitimate and helpful, such as robocalls made by schools about closings or by pharmacies about filled prescriptions, many of them are coming from criminals trying to steal your money. Call blocking and management provider First Orion projects that by the end of this year, nearly half the calls we get on our cellphones are going to be scam calls.
Robocalling is attractive for scammers because they can reach a broad swath of people, telecom industry standards and federal laws haven't caught up with the technology, and many people don't know how to effectively deal with the issue.
Will Wiquist, Federal Communications Commission deputy press secretary, said via email that scammers can make money through fraudulent schemes or by gathering information they can sell, such as personal information about the consumer or even just the information that the number is a good target because the consumer answers when called. Among the more common tools used by scammers, Wiquist said, are "spoofing" calls that appear to be from a real number with a caller or recording impersonating banks or insurance companies with the aim of getting your Social Security number or credit card information.
While anyone with a phone can be affected by scam robocalls, people in the financial industry, who deal with a variety of sensitive data, have some special concerns. Here are some tips on how to combat unwanted robocalls to your personal phone and your business:
Hang up and don't say anything. According to Chris Dawson, threat intelligence lead for Proofpoint, a cybersecurity company based in California, the best way to combat robocalls is to either ignore calls from unknown numbers or hang up immediately without saying anything.
"Even if you say something as simple as 'yes,' there are scams that allow that to be used as consent for charging your phone" via an addition to your bill, Dawson said. "So just hang up and don't speak."
Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, agreed, saying if it's a number you don't recognize, don't answer it. If it's important, the person will leave a voicemail.
A robocall asking you for a credit card number or saying your credit card or Social Security account has been suspended is a red flag, and you should hang up immediately without saying anything.
Install a robo-blocking app. Protecting against robocalls is similar to guarding your computer against viruses. Just as you would install antivirus software on your computer, you should install a robocall-blocking app on your phone.
"The first thing you want to get on your cellphone is a robocall blocker — you can't go naked without that protection," Quilici said.
Call-blocking apps all have slight variations, but they all aim to block or thwart unwanted automated calls. YouMail's app, for example, identifies bad numbers and suppresses the ring on your phone, replacing it with an out-of-service message, so whoever is making that call thinks your number is invalid and stops calling you.
Thanks to a new ruling approved by the FCC this June that allows service providers to block unwanted calls as a default, it's possible that you may not even need to install an app in the future, as long as service providers decide to get on board and start blocking robocalls before they reach your phone. Until then, you'll still want to install a robo-blocking app, just in case.
Do your homework. It's also important to resist reflexively calling numbers back. In the same way you would avoid clicking links in emails from unknown senders, you should consider unfamiliar phone numbers potentially problematic, Quilici said.
If you get a voicemail from a number claiming to be your credit card company, for example, you should go to the company's website and find a phone number there or call the number on the back of your credit card rather than call back the number that left the voicemail.
"The onus right now is on businesses and consumers to reach out directly to these organizations that claim to be contacting you and make sure they're legit," Dawson said.
Block numbers and help the cause. Aside from installing third-party apps and avoiding all interaction with robocallers, individuals can help build the database of "bad actors" by consistently reporting calls from spammers.
Individuals can also support the adoption of standards across phone providers, as many European countries have done with success, to help put an end to the deluge of robocalls. In the U.K., for example, communications regulator Ofcom teamed up with carriers to pool data and technical resources to find ways to prevent misuse of cell networks. Late last year, the FCC called on the telecom industry to help put an end to scam robocalls, and some companies have already begun testing authentication systems designed to circumvent spoofing. Unfortunately, change will likely involve an industrywide effort, so individuals can only do so much.
"Sure, we can promote [these changes] and look for providers who are attempting to address the issue," Dawson said. "But right now, it is very much the Wild West, and that means there's a whole lot of lawlessness floating around and there are not really any good deputies in town, to extend the analogy."
Tips for shielding your business from robocalls
The rise of scam robocalls is also a growing problem for businesses, both large and small. According to Quilici, businesses are not getting a large number of inbound robocalls to their landlines, in part because so many have automated receptionists, which robocallers don't bother to try to get through. But small business owners who use cellphones have to deal with both inbound robocalls and the increased difficulty of connecting with clients who are no longer answering their phones. Large businesses likewise find that their calls are often ignored amid the deluge of automated calls and are also falling victim to company impersonation. Here are a few ways businesses can tackle the robocall issue:
Set up an automated receptionist. If your office doesn't already have one, Quilici recommends setting up an automated receptionist, which will act as a blockade to robocalls. Robots typically don't want to waste time talking to other robots and will terminate the call soon after being presented with an automated receptionist.
Screen your calls. If you're a small business using mobile phones to connect with clients, but you don't want to waste your day talking to robots, you can record a voicemail message that lets people know you're screening your calls but will return those from clients and prospects right away. When they hear that greeting, they can leave a message and know you'll call them back, Quilici said.
Be on the lookout for impostors. A growing issue for large businesses is their brands are being used in scams, according to Quilici.
"If you're [a well-known credit card company] and there's a scammer pretending to be you, telling people they're late on their credit card payments, getting bank wire information, and committing fraud, you need to know about that," he said. "I think the next big thing that businesses are going to see and want to work with is reputation management for their brand on phone networks."
Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.