All the new neighbors were checking in. Michael Carpentino called, then Maria Rockwood. Just before that it was Barry Grossbaum, David Solomon and Janet McErlean. And not to be left out we also heard from Indra Dube, Charles Brown and John Loveless. Another new person called a few times, as well: I guess whatever they had to say must have been important as they kept trying. The caller ID for 914-234-5147? First name “Probably,” last name “Fraud.”
Of late our phone has been ringing off the hook. I wish I could say it’s because we were so popular, and everyone wants to talk. But just as the Delta variant has fueled a rise in infections, the current state of the pandemic has also pushed up another infestation with a less lethal but more annoying profile, the scourge of robocalls using local numbers and fictitious neighbors.
While there have always been unsolicited sales and scam calls, ever since the deregulation of the phone system and the move to computer-based telecommunications the problem has exploded. As of this writing 2021 was on pace to reach 51.5 billion robocalls, a big jump from 2020 (45.9 billion), and closing in on 2019’s record tally of 58.5 billion, up 22% from the year before. The reason for the dip was, like almost everything else over the last 16 months, the effects of COVID. Yes, more people were at home to answer the phone, but call centers had been shut down or their head count severely restricted due to quarantines and social distancing. And there’s no point in asking people to “Press 1 to be connected to an agent” when there are no agents to be connected to.
Still, the economics mean that, whatever the health situation, robocalls are not going away without a fight. For very little investment the returns are impressive. As an example, you can buy 125,000 minutes of robocalls for $875 from Message Communications Inc., one supplier who has already been fined by the government. If a person listens for just three seconds to one of their calls, that $875 would equate to 2.5 million calls, with a single penny buying 28 spam calls. Even if just one out of every 10,000 calls of those calls turns into an actual lead, at the going rate of $7 per lead, just an hour of robocalls nets $1,750 in revenue, or over 100% return on the initial investment.
Various strategies have been tried to combat the onslaught, but it’s basically a game of whack-a-mole, though as Aaron Foss, the founder of anti-spam call company Nomorobo says, “Whack-a-mole is fun, fighting robocallers isn’t.” Do Not Call lists and selective legal prosecution help. And third-party software fixes like Foss’ can be effective: his company claims it has stopped 2 billion robocalls since it was started in 2013. But with so many spammers located overseas in places with less than robust legal systems and regulation, it’s a losing battle.
Some help may be on the way in the form of a new technology being rolled out as we speak. The FCC is implementing a new system obviously designed by a James Bond aficionado. Called Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens, it is better known in the industry by its acronym, STIR/SHAKEN. The idea is to force the networks that carry the calls to beef up authentication and verification of caller ID information for calls carried over computer-based networks. That means Verizon and AT&T will now be responsible for ensuring that when your neighbor’s name pops up on your screen that it really is coming from the house down the street, and not from a warehouse of servers in Uzbekistan.
Still, just as the rest of us are getting back to work so are the spammers. Short of ripping your phone out of the wall, there’s not a lot you can do that is truly effective. With the cost of making the calls so low and the threat of prosecution so remote, expect your phone to keep on ringing. In fact, there goes ours again. Another local number and another call from Holly Ash or Frank Rocco or Jeffery Maron. I never knew so many neighbors wanted to have a word.
Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn’t answer the phone unless it’s his wife, mother or kids. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at glancingaskance.blogspot.com, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.