Robocallers just keep on robo-calling.
Despite recent regulatory and legislative efforts to stop annoying and sometimes malicious robocalls, Americans were targeted by an estimated 5.5 billion in October—a near-record amount that’s up 12% from the previous month, according to data from the spam-call-stopping app, RoboKiller.
In a phone conversation with Nextgov Wednesday, Ethan Garr, RoboKiller’s senior vice president of strategic growth, shared data-based insights on the spike, new details about what insiders are uncovering regarding domestic and international scamming operations, and how the company is working with the federal government to catalyze robocall solutions.
“Twenty years ago when the phone rang, I used to be excited—maybe it was my grandmother calling, or someone I wanted to talk to,” Garr explained. “Now, people are scared to pick up their phones because it’s probably someone on the other end who is trying to reach into their pockets and steal their money or their identity, or at least get them to buy something that they don’t want to buy.”
Robocalls, or calls where pre-recorded messages target consumers through computerized auto-dialers, have been on the rise over the last half-decade. According to a report released by the Federal Communications Commission in February, nearly 48 billion robocalls were made to U.S. phones last year and complaints have been consistently rising since 2015. The FCC’s report also predicted that nearly 50% of all calls made to American mobile phones this year would be spam. A variety of legislation and regulations were then introduced to curb the calls.
In May, the Senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence, or Traced, Act and in July the House passed the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act. Garr noted that both pieces of legislation are largely aimed at accomplishing the same goals. They seek to provide more protections for consumers and more latitude to help mobile carriers and enforcement agencies gain relevant data and effectively block bad robocalls. This summer, the Federal Trade Commission also announced a “major crackdown on illegal robocalls,” involving 94 actions targeting specific operations that were responsible for more than one billion calls.
“When that happened, we actually did see a dramatic decline,” Garr said. “We saw the numbers drop under 5 billion for the first time in several months. Unfortunately, they’ve crept back up since then.”
RoboKiller’s data and tracking insights suggest that there was an initial dip below 5 billion calls per month in August and September, but by October it was up to 5.5 billion—an average of about 20 calls per American consumer that month. The states most impacted by spam in that period were California, Texas, and Florida. But Garr noted that RoboKiller’s tracking efforts indicate that most of the scammers’ work stems from well-established networks operating overseas that can "spoof," or impersonate, local area codes, rendering most calls nearly impossible to trace and prosecutions difficult, if not impossible. Still, he has been able to trace some calls this year back to Pakistan, India and Malaysia, among other countries.
Garr also highlighted the fact that October saw an uptick in spam calls related to health care. He and his team predict it might be related to the deadline around the Affordable Care Act, which is in November.
“Scammers and spammers are very opportunistic,” he said. “They are always doing these scams, but as they start to see better traction, they ramp up the number of calls.” The SVP made a point to note that 5.5 billion is an estimate based on all the calls the app handled in October, extrapolated with other factors against the total population. The mobile app itself uses machine learning, audio fingerprinting, user feedback and other technologies to protect consumers from harassing spam calls. The service also answers the calls it blocks with “answerbots,” which are recorded voices that engage with spammers and send information back to RoboKiller for analysis.
“We are able to have an audio fingerprint of the robocalls themselves and we can compare those audio fingerprints,” Garr said. “Then we can say ‘hey, this phone number is making the exact same call that this number was making.’”
Insiders will also speak to spammers directly, to try to figure out exactly what they want and who they are targeting. He found that when he does get through a robocall and to an actual operator, people only stay on the line if they feel that they can successfully scam those on the other end.
“If you think about it like a giant funnel, the robocalls are at the very top of the funnel. You can make millions of robocalls in an hour—the technology is not very advanced and it’s very inexpensive to make calls. So these companies will make millions and millions of calls—billions in total,” Garr said. “But the robocalls themselves can’t scam you out of money, what they are designed to do is get you to a human operator and that’s the person who can take advantage of you.”
During the conversation with Nextgov Wednesday, Garr was on a train to Washington D.C., where he’s traveling to meet directly with legislators and regulators on Capitol Hill to further address the problem and share the company’s latest data. He said that while there’s still much to be done, he appreciates the government’s inclusion of industry perspectives as it works towards a solution. He noted that in 2014, RoboKiller was “galvanized by” and ended up winning a contest hosted by the FTC that called on technologists to create tools to help fight robocalls.
Garr believes that while no individual law or regulation can solve the massive problem on its own, the most effective solutions will require robust partnerships and collaboration between the public and private sectors.
“I think it’s very important that nuances of this problem are considered carefully, just so that we ensure that there aren’t any other unintended consequences that cause other problems down the road,” he said. “So we are just trying to be a good partner in this process.”