PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Phone customers in the Reno area average about six unwanted robocalls per month, according to an international technology firm's analysis. Many are scams aimed at fleecing whoever answers.

Never, ever trust a robot on the phone.

That’s particularly timely advice this month. The number of so-called “robocall” scams have soared in Nevada as conmen hitch their come-ons to the COVID-19 pandemic and election season. It’s their chance to fleece people who are at home more than they would be in a normal year. It’s prime time to capitalize on 2020’s contagion, economic uncertainty and hard-fought political campaigns.

“Nevada saw a 28% increase in political robocalls (the first two weeks of October),” said Bill Versen, chief product officer Transaction Network Services. “Not only is political robocall volume spiking, but so are the risks to voters, particularly those in battleground states like Nevada. They’re being targeted with robocall and robotext misinformation campaigns that have to do with mail-in voting, as well as scams to acquire voters’ money and personal information…

“And yes, there are also legitimate political campaign calls, but it’s nearly impossible to tell the real calls from the bad actors.”

Reno rings up 1.5 million robocalls a month

Transaction Network Services is a Washington, D.C.-based firm that analyzes more than 1 billion robocalls daily to identify trends and the tactics used by the callers. The company examined state-by-state political call volumes over the past weeks and months compared to previous years’ activity. The firm identified a recent surge in both political-related calls and calls using the COVID-19 crisis as a means to convince victims to share personal information such as Social Security numbers.

Nevadans receive about 6 million “unwanted” robocalls per month, with the “greater Reno” area accounting for about 1.5 million of those calls, according to the company’s analysis. That geographic area includes Reno, Sparks, unincorporated Washoe County, Carson City and Fernley. “That (call volume) is very high, considering the adult population of the area. It means, on average, a phone customer is getting about six calls of those unsolicited calls a month,” Verson said.

It’s a given that political calls will surge right before an election, but both TNS and the Better Business Bureau have documented that scammers are using phony fundraising calls to trick Americans into “donating” to a favorite candidate. But it’s not about a candidate or even the amount of the fake “contribution.” It’s about stealing the victim’s identity.

Bogus calls may use candidate’s voice

Versen said the top three types of fraudulent political calls involve donations, surveys and voter registration. The donation calls may start with a recording of a candidate’s voice. It may be an excerpt from a speech or an appeal for contributions. Often, the pitch has a sense of urgency; the candidate needs cash fast to match an opponent’s surge in contributions. The robot then asks the target to press a number on the keypad to make a donation.  

Bill Versen, Transaction Network Services.

“Hit pause for a second instead,” Versen advised. “If you are interested in giving to the candidate’s campaign, hang up and go to the candidate’s website. Donate online or find their phone number and donate directly when you know for sure who you are talking to. There are some legitimate donation calls from campaigns, but we found a number of them that are fraudulent.”

Automated political survey calls also can be lead-ins to scams. Many surveys are legitimate, Verson said, but beware of those that offer incentives to participate. To get the prize, the target of the scam is asked to provide a credit card number to cover minimal shipping costs. That’s the red flag, Verson said.

Misinformation spread in June primary

Other types of bogus calls may involve voter registration drives. “That sounds legitimate, right?” he asked. “And then they offer to register you on the phone, and that may sound OK too during the COVID situation when you want to avoid doing things in person. But that’s a con game to get your Social Security number. You can’t register to vote by phone. No jurisdiction allows that. That call is always a scam.”

Based on the trends TNS documented during the Democratic primaries in June, voters can expect to see more skullduggery this month. Those calls may involve misinformation aimed at voter suppression. In the days before the primary, people got calls reminding them to vote, but on the wrong day. “This month, we expect calls telling people not to forget to vote on Nov. 4, when Election Day is Nov. 3,” Versen said.


COVID-19 concerns a ‘hook’ for con games

The pandemic is credited for a 15% drop in robocalls during the first six months of this year, as the stay-at-home mandate put “a significant dent in the ability of bad actors to launch their campaigns,” Versen said. But the volume of fraudulent calls increased as the conmen pivoted to using the pandemic itself as a ploy to fleece their victims.

COVID-19 robocall scams, which peaked just after the federal stimulus checks arrived in Americans’ bank accounts, continue to be a problem. The Federal Trade Commission reported 126,902 COVID-19 fraud incidents in the first half of the year, resulting in approximately $70 million in losses. Scammers seized on consumer fear and confusion to launch a barrage of pandemic scams built around stimulus checks, fake cures and test kits, health insurance, student loans and robocalls targeting seniors.

“The confidence people seize on topical events,” said Jim Tyrell, TNS director of product marketing. “During the pandemic, people are getting legitimate contact-tracing calls. Now, some of the bad actors are posing as contact tracers.”

Those scammers ask about who the person has come into contact with, but also offer the victim a home COVID-19 testing kit at a relatively low price. That harvests the person’s credit card number. Real contact tracers, he noted, have “branded” government caller IDs. In addition, legitimate contact tracers will never ask for personal information or payments for anything.

Seniors are prime targets for scams

The conmen also are targeting seniors by claiming they are eligible for special Medicare coverage related to the pandemic or telling them they can get genetic testing for cancer. But they warn the targets they have to co-pay for the test before a deadline. Again, they get a credit card number that supposedly covers a minimal fee. “So they are scaring people with the robocall, getting them to press 1 to talk to a real person, who then is in a position to steal your information,” Tyrell said.

TNS found that 89% of seniors receive at least one robocall per week, while more than half (56%) receive at least seven of those calls per week. Verson said hard line telephone numbers receive twice as many robocalls than cell phones numbers.

About 40% of the total calls to hard-wired telephone numbers are unwanted compared to 20% for wireless numbers. In addition, the total number of unwanted calls to hard line numbers is trending flat while the total number of unwanted calls to wireless numbers is dropping.

Tyrell said cell phone apps that provide some security against fraudulent calls probably account for the difference in the call totals. Most wireless carriers offer such applications. Still, it’s a kind of arms race, he said, as security measures improve, scammers find new ways to cheat and steal.

Crooks ‘spoof’ numbers on Caller ID

Caller ID systems, for example, can be fooled when scammers “spoof” a number by making it appear that a call is coming from a legitimate business or from a local caller. If someone is calling you out of the blue, it’s most likely a con game. Don’t “press 1 to be removed from our list;” that could just confirm to the scammer that your number is valid. Consumers also may register with the National DoNotCall Registry (888-382-1222). That won’t prevent scam calls, but should reduce the number of legitimate marketing calls those who register receive.

The con games keep morphing as well. “These guys are pretty smart in how they try to sound legitimate,” Tyrell said. “They change their tactics frequently. They seize on current events and remain topical.”

The Better Business Bureau has more advice about how to avoid robocall scams. Those who have been victimized by such calls may report them to the BBB’s Scam Tracker. The safest bet, Tyrell said, is not to accept calls from unidentified or unknown numbers. And if there’s a robot solicitor on the other end of the line — just hang up. The robot won’t be insulted

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