For all the fancy technology of smartphones, robocalls remain a nearly unstoppable problem.
Governments and consumer organizations have tried to outsmart them. Millions of dollars in fines have been levied against the people who program them. Do Not Call lists have been created.
The robots are undeterred.
“That’s the gist of it, technology wins again,” said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a company that offers robocall-blocking software.
If anything, the smartphone explosion has only made the problem worse. U.S. consumers were hit by around 2.5 billion robocalls in the month of June alone. That’s more than 9,600 calls per second.
This is not a new problem, nor is it one that isn’t being attacked. The Federal Communication Commission receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 complaints a year, which make it the agency’s top consumer issue.
The FCC has taken its share of criticism recently for its attempts to repeal net neutrality, as have the telecommunications industry for advocating such a move. Robocalls appear to be the one topic where consumers, consumer advocates, the FCC, and the companies involved are on the same page. Everyone agrees it’s an issue, everyone is on board with taking action.
Yet the problem appears to be getting worse. It’s cheaper than ever to make calls and people have smartphones on them for just about every waking minute, meaning robocalls are very lucrative. That means lots of calls. One woman claimed to have received more than 20,000 calls in the span of 20 months.
“If only a few people fall for your scam, you’re still reaping in the money,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst at Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports.
So far, efforts to stop robocalls have mostly been of the whack-a-mole variety. The FCC has gone after individuals when possible, with one Florida resident the subject of a proposed a $120 million fine for making almost 97 million calls.
That only goes so far, especially when a lot of robocalls are coming from outside the U.S. and using advanced tech that sidesteps existing countermeasures, including “Do Not Call” lists.
“A lot of these calls are coming from overseas,” Mahoney said. “They’re also hiding their identity using this technique called call spoofing. It’s become really easy to input a different number into your caller I.D. that can trick the consumer into picking up the phone.”
“Certainly it’s challenging to stay ahead of the scammers who have such strong financial incentives to call,” Mahoney said.
It’s more than a nuisance. Quilici noted that many people now use their smartphones as their primary phones, including for work. Robocalls aren’t just interrupting dinner, they’re hampering the ability for people to conduct business, especially when they need to answer calls from unfamiliar numbers.
It’s also not sustainable to block all robocalls, said Matt Bailey, assistant vice president of mobile broadband networks and services.
“Some robocalls are legitimate like the ones you get from your dentist,” he said.
Bailey described a cat-and-mouse game between networks and robocallers. AT&T and many other providers have rolled out a variety of measures that help identify and block robocalls.
“Really what they’re trying to do is… detect new ways around solutions to get around the capabilities that we’ve put in place,” Bailey said.
These countermeasures only go so far. Robocallers continue to find a way. One study put the cost of robocalls in 2016 at $9.5 billion, with the average victim scammed out of $430. Calls target a wide variety of people, and millennials aren’t proving to be particularly immune.
“So you want to answer every phone call and that means you’re spending half your day answering robocalls, which is really a problem,” Quilici said. “It’s starting to have an economic impact.”
Some help could be on the horizon. The FCC is considering new rules that would give companies more freedom to block suspected robocalls on their networks.
Quilici noted that consumers play an important role in stopping robocalls. If people stop picking up random numberscombined with the efforts of regulators and service providersthe people running the robocall scams will lose out on the money that fuels their operations.
“That starts destroying the economics of robocalling, and I think that’s what’s really critical here, that view it as an economic issue,” Quilici said.
For now, there’s not much people can do. Robocalls are simply too easy and too profitable. And that’s not about to change anytime soon.