Yes, It's Bad. Robocalls, and Their Scams, Are Surging.
By TARA SIEGEL BERNARD, MAY 6, 2018
It's not just you.
Those pesky robocalls — at best annoying disturbances and at worst costly financial scams — are getting worse.
In an age when cellphones have become extensions of our bodies, robocallers now follow people wherever they go, disrupting business meetings, church services and bedtime stories with their children.
Though automated calls have long plagued consumers, the volume has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching an estimated 3.4 billion in April, according to YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service. That's an increase of almost 900 million a month compared with a year ago.
Federal lawmakers have noticed the surge. Both the House and Senate held hearings on the issue within the last two weeks, and each chamber has either passed or introduced legislation aimed at curbing abuses. Federal regulators have also noticed, issuing new rules in November that give phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.
Law enforcement authorities have noticed, too. Just the other week, the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, warned consumers about a scheme targeting people with Chinese last names, in which the caller purports to be from the Chinese Consulate and demands money. Since December, the New York Police Department said, 21 Chinese immigrants had lost a total of $2.5 million.
Despite these efforts, robocalls are a thorny problem to solve. Calls can travel through various carriers and a maze of networks, making it hard to pinpoint their origins, enabling the callers to evade rules. Regulators are working with the telecommunications industry to find ways to authenticate calls, which would help unmask the callers.
In the meantime, the deceptive measures have become more sophisticated. In one tactic, known as "neighborhood spoofing," robocallers use local numbers in the hope that recipients will be more likely to pick up.
It's a trick that Dr. Gary Pess, a hand surgeon in Eatontown, N.J., knows all too well. He receives so many calls that mimic his area code and the first three digits of his phone number that he no longer answers them. But having to sort robocalls from emergency calls has cost him precious minutes.
Dr. Pess recounted an incident in which he didn't recognize a number and figured it was a robocall. He later learned it was an emergency room doctor calling about a person who had severed a thumb that he wanted Dr. Pess to reattach. "It delayed the treatment of a patient," he said.
Consumer advocates say they worry the flood of calls could get even worse. A federal court ruling recently struck down a Barack Obama-era definition of an auto-dialer, leaving it to the Federal Communications Commission to come up with new guidance. Advocates fear that it will open up the field to even more robocallers, leaving consumers with little recourse.
Business groups, including the Consumer Bankers Association, counter that defining auto-dialers too broadly would hurt legitimate businesses trying to reach their customers.
Robocallers see the current F.C.C. leadership "as friendly to industry," said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, "and they are anticipating F.C.C. rulings that will enable more calling and forgive past mistakes — or violations of the current law."
A spokesman for the F.C.C. said the commission would seek public comment on how auto-dialers should be defined, and then "take action based on the record it compiles."
Complaints about telemarketers and scammers have steadily increased in recent years, with robocalls identified in the majority of cases.
Robocaller Live caller
2013 2.2m 1.5
2014 1.7 1.4
2015 2.1 1.4
2016 3.4 1.9
2017 4.5 2.6
By The New York Times | Source: Federal Trade Commission
Automated calls are increasing because they are cheap and easy to make. Robocallers can easily dial millions of consumers daily, experts say, at little cost.
That's essentially what one accused robocaller recently told legislators at a Senate hearing: Adrian Abramovich, a Miami man who regulators say made nearly 100 million "spoofed" robocalls, was peddling vacation packages that were advertised as coming from well-known companies like Marriott. But when consumers pressed to hear more, they were transferred to foreign call centers often trying to sell time shares, according to the F.C.C., which is seeking a $120 million fine. Mr. Abramovich has denied the charges and asked the regulator to reduce the penalty.
The calls are increasing despite stepped-up enforcement and other efforts to stamp them out, which some have likened to a game of Whac-a-Mole; robocallers find new phone numbers to hide behind once their numbers are ignored or blocked.
The federal Do Not Call List, which is supposed to help consumers avoid robocalls, instead resembles a tennis net trying to stop a flood. The list may prevent some (but not all) legitimate companies from calling people on the list, but it does little to deter fraudsters and marketers, some of them overseas, who are willing to take their chances and flout the law.
Complaints to federal regulators are also increasing sharply. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the Do Not Call Registry, said there were 4.5 million complaints about robocalls in 2017, more than double the 2.18 million complaints logged in 2013.
"Everywhere I go, it is what people talk about," said Denise Grimsley, a Republican member of the Florida Senate, who said a woman named Elizabeth leaves her prerecorded messages several times daily selling a vacation package.
"But it's not just annoying," she added. "They are coming after your personal information."
How Robocallers Try to Defraud You
Estimated volumes of top phone scams in March 2018.
Category Type Volume
Interest rates "0% interest rates" 122.9m
Credit cards "Problem with your credit card" 82.5m
Student loans "Forgive/lower student debt" 71.0m
Business loans "Preapproved for business loan" 53.4m
I.R.S. "Owe money to the I.R.S." 43.4m
Search listings "Listing has a problem" 31.0m
Travel "Free/discount trip" 27.0m
Preapproved loans "Ready to wire – just need info" 26.2m
Home security "Free service/installation" 26.1m
Utilities "Save money – need your info" 19.2m
Florida passed a bill in March giving phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.
Other efforts are underway. The Federal Trade Commission has held contests to encourage app developers to create innovative ways to block calls. And some phone companies offer blocking services, though "many people don't have access to free, effective robo-blocking tools," said Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst at Consumers Union.
With some exceptions — like calls from schools on snow days — auto-dialed calls to mobile phones are typically illegal, unless a person has given prior consent. Advocates say courts have generally interpreted the law to say that when a consumer revokes that consent, the calls must stop — though they often don't.
The same rules apply to creditors seeking to collect debts, which lawyers and advocates say can be some of the most ruthless dialers.
There are fewer restrictions on landlines, unless you're on the Do Not Call list, but prerecorded telemarketing calls are always illegal without written consent, advocates say, and debt collectors must stop calling after consumers send a written request.
James Hunter, a Florida resident who is paralyzed below the waist and can no longer work, had his federal student loans forgiven. But Navient, the giant company that services and collects student debt, made more than 2,500 automated calls to him about his private loans over a period of about two years, sometimes calling nine times a day, according to Mr. Hunter's lawyer, who filed a suit on his behalf claiming Navient acted illegally.
Navient did not immediately comment.
For now, consumers must do their best to find ways to control the wave of calls. Brett Hein, a sports editor at a newspaper in Ogden, Utah, said that for him it was a losing battle. His mobile phone has been inundated with calls in recent weeks, rousting him from bed and twice interrupting him while he was volunteering in his son's kindergarten class.
"It's disconcerting to have your phone go off all the time," Mr. Hein said from a landline in his office, when his mobile phone began to ring.
It was another robocall. The fifth one that day.
A version of this article appears in print on May 6, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Yes, Those Calls You're Ignoring Are Increasing.