In the war between robocalls and humans, the robots are winning.
“I’ve gotten scammed before and I felt really embarrassed that I got… got,” said said Danielle C. Smith of Reno, who said she receives six to 10 calls daily, often back-to-back. “I feel really bad that this is happening to older people, disabled people and the most vulnerable among us.”
She’s right. Last year, the Nevada’s Attorney General’s Office shut down a huge robocall scam operation, which had made more than a billion fake “charitable fundraising” calls and scammed $110 million from its victims. That con game is shuttered, but Nevada continues to receive the sixth-highest number of robocalls per state in the country.
In 2021, Nevadans received about 460 million, nearly 200 million (42%) of which were scam robocalls—or between 6 and 7 scam robocalls for each Nevadan per month. Anecdotally, many Nevadans report receiving that many scam calls per week. According to estimates based on TrueCaller survey data, well over a quarter million Nevadans lost money to scam robocalls in 2021.
A billion robots on the line
According to data from the National Consumer Law Center, Americans currently receive over one billion of these calls each month, more than 33 million daily. A robocall is one issued by a computer (instead of a live person) that delivers a recorded message. They can be legitimately placed by doctors’ offices, political campaigns or agencies, but nearly half are generated by scammers. The recorded message claims to be from the IRS, Amazon or some other legitimate source and urges recipients to “press 1” to dispute an unauthorized purchase or tax bill.
The scams are designed to scare or trick people into disclosing personal information or sending gift cards to pay some non-existent bill. There are so many of these calls because they often work.
A 2019 survey by Transaction Network Services found that 53% of older adults believe robocallers tried to trick them out of personal information and that 47% were targets of financial schemes. Reno dentist Kristian Sievert said he is harassed by robos trying to sell him warranties for his vehicles and often gets up to three a day, “I hate them, but I have to answer them, because it could be a patient,” Sievert said.
One of the problems with the uptick in scam robo calls is how much it has eroded people’s trust in all unidentified calls, causing them to ignore potentially useful legitimate robo calls (such as appointment reminders from a doctor’s office). A recent survey from Transaction Network services found that 75% of callers never pick up calls from an unknown source. On the other hand, up to 8-in-10 consumers are willing to answer calls if the caller ID identifies the logo and name of an organization they recognize. The development of “spoofing” has made telling legit calls from scam ones even more difficult. Spoofing allows fraudulent calls to come in with familiar area codes, often fooling caller ID software.
Jim Tyrrell, a vice president at Transaction Network Services, a company that collects data by routing over a billion and a half calls a day over its network, said his company builds analytics for what are “good/legal” calls versus “bad/scam” calls. Though it may be hard to believe, he said scam robocalls decreased slightly in the past year, down about 6%. “Still, (more than) five billion scam calls get through every month. Many consumers feel like the problem hasn’t abated at all or not gone down fast enough.”
Those who have been caught up in a robocall scam are in good company. The Truecaller Insights 2021 U.S. Spam & Scam Report found 1-in-3 Americans report being a victim and 19% said they have been scammed more than once. The estimated loss to these scams in the past 12 months is 9.8 billion dollars; the average amount lost is estimated to be $502.
Political calls about to peak
With election season looming, Tyrell and other industry experts forecast a significant uptick in both legal and scam robocalls. “When we looked at caucuses before the general election (robo call frequency) went up from between 40% to 400%,” said Tyrell. He also warns that not all political robo calls are on the up and up, “In Texas a couple of years ago there was a robo call that gave the wrong date to go vote in the primary election. So robo calls can be used for these types of smear campaigns.”
Because most scam robocalls originate from outside the country, finding and prosecuting perpetrators is difficult and has been mostly ineffective. “I think the FCC has written about 20 cease and desist letters in the past few years regarding illegal robocall traffic,” Tyrell said. “There are so many different providers it’s kind of like a game of whack-a-mole.”
The FCC works with Federal Trade Commission to prosecute gateway service providers that host scam robocallers. These providers are charged with ensuring the phone traffic into the US is legal, but these organizations rarely take sufficient action, likely because hosting these calls is a lucrative business, according to the Nevada attorney general’s office.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford in August announced the Silver State is joining a nationwide Anti-Robocall Litigation Task Force to investigate and take legal action against providers that host these rogue calls. This bipartisan, nationwide Task Force has the singular goal of cutting down on scam robocalls. “The ongoing scourge of robocalls has defrauded Nevadans and Americans as a whole out of millions, and we will take every step necessary to cut down on these scams,” Ford said in a statement.
Not answering calls from unknown sources is likely the simplest and most powerful step a person can take in avoiding getting caught up in scams. Red flags include callers asking about an unauthorized purchase and/or requesting payment via a gift card, wire transfer or cryptocurrency. Threatening calls from a supposed government agency — such as the IRS or Social Security Administration — are usually fraudulent.
The best response: hang up and call back the organization through the number listed on their official website. Downloading a free or paid anti-spam/caller ID app is another option for reducing these calls. Nevadans who have been victims of fraud may file a complaint with the FCC and the Nevada attorney General’s Office. The best advice is “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Tyrrell “If you do have older parents, check in with them regularly and find out if they have received any calls that sound suspicious.”
Even if a recipient is immune to scams, getting the frequent robocalls are annoying and frustrating.
“It’s a moment or a flicker out of life. It’s a fishhook that takes you out of the moment,” said said Dean Hinitz, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Then you have to consciously unhook and try to bench press yourself back. These calls take away a micro bit of my autonomy. I want to be the author of my day and this takes away from my own authorship.”