Why Spam and Robocalls are on the Rise

We’ve all been receiving these types of calls, pre-recorded messages that are relentless, annoying and almost always, downright illegal. It’s become an absolute epidemic.

According to North American statistics, spam calls or robocalls are at an all-time high and it only appears to be increasing each and every single month. Just this past October 2019, US citizens received a record-breaking amount of them… to the tune of 5.6 billion calls. That’s BILLION.

Here in Canada, we’re also likely setting new records each month and our telecom industry is facing a massive challenge from a deluge of these unsolicited and unwanted phone calls.

So why are these types of spam and robocalls on the rise? Simply put, scammers can easily and anonymously victimize consumers for millions and millions of dollars, from anywhere in the world, with little chance of getting caught and prosecuted.

It’s simply a numbers game. Make billions of calls, get thousands of people to answer, and it trickles down to dozens of victims every day.

Technology has made it possible for a rapid increase in fraudulent or nuisance calls. One of the reasons is phone systems that use voice over internet protocol (VOIP) are being used for either legitimate or criminal purposes. It allows for a technique known as Caller ID Spoofing and it has been available to people with a specialized digital connection to the phone company.

There are legitimate reasons why a caller ID’s information is altered, such as when medical staff call patients but want to direct them to call back on a hospital’s general number. This makes spoofing so difficult to stop because it is so easy for scammers to change the information to anything they want to make it appear it’s coming from legitimate businesses or phone numbers.

One of the most common scams has been spoofing the number of the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) in which callers posing as officials have defrauded Canadians of over $16 million since 2014.

Another common scam is known as ‘neighbouring’, where they trick you into answering the call by altering the caller ID to appear to match the first 6 digits of your phone number so it looks like a local call.

So how are scammers actually making these illegal calls?

Basically, they buy a big list of leads, put them all into the phone system, set up a call center, blast out calls with pre-recorded messages and voila! The risk is almost zero, while the rewards are millions every single year.

But how do they get your phone numbers?

Every time that you sign up for a free service, whether it’s from the phone company, an app, or maybe you use your phone number in a retail store to get coupons or points – we’re the ones giving out that information and it’s up to us as the consumers to ask what they are doing with that information? Do they sell it to a third-party?

These are serious questions to ask when companies ask for your personal information. Even if they don’t sell off your information, countless big security breaches have occurred where cyber-criminals have collected a massive amount of personal data to be used in illegal schemes. Something seemingly as innocuous as giving out your phone number to established brands might have put you on lists where you end up being spammed relentlessly on a daily basis.

And oftentimes, scammers use systems just to dial randomly on a mass scale until someone picks up.

There is a whole criminal enterprise that exists to create lists of phone numbers that are active. Have you ever received a call from an unknown number and you answered but there is nobody there? That could be one of these services that check if your phone is active and being used. You are then added to a list and sold.

And these calls appear in ever more creative ways. In October, the most popular phone scams in the US involved the health-related industry, interest rates, student loans, social security and warranties.

When it comes to who falls for scams, it’s interesting to note that in a report from the Better Business Bureau, that people in the 18-24 age range were more than twice as susceptible to robocalls than those who are over 65. But the people in the 65 and over age range, lost four times the amount of money. That’s a simple answer to why these calls are on the rise. Criminals are making millions.

The problem is so big, the US government and all 4 major US carriers (Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon) are trying to do something about it to combat the issue.

Industry regulators here at home, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has given telecom companies until December 19th to start introducing preliminary measures that block or filter out some illegal calls. But it has also informed service providers that they have to do more to address the situation.

As one of the first steps, Bell and Rogers are adding Universal Call Blocking and applying it to their systems at the network level to stop malformed and blatantly spoofed numbers. However, Universal Call Blocking is less effective at stopping nuisance calls. As an alternative, Telus will put in place a filtering system that blocks most robocalls. Their system aligns with the CRTC’s best practices for filtering services.

All of Canada’s major carriers have pledged to work with industry partners to fully address the problem but say that it is complex and will require multiple advanced solutions. For instance, the CRTC wants telecom carriers to eventually put a traceback system in place for tracing the origin of spam calls, which would be a vital tool for enforcing Canada’s laws and regulations.

But even then, there will always be a challenge to find permanent solutions as many of these calls are outside of North American jurisdiction.

So how do we stop (or at least reduce) telemarketing and other unwanted calls?

First, you can register your home, mobile, fax or VoIP number on Canada’s National Do Not Call list.

Next, use your device’s built-in settings to block spam calls.

In iOS devices, there is an embedded feature called ‘Silence Unknown Callers’ to help prevent spam phone calls. However, if you’ve previously texted a number or had the phone number sent via email, then that call will still get through.

Once the feature is enabled, these unknown callers will be silenced and sent straight to your voicemail. For example, if you haven’t saved a number from your doctor’s office, they can still leave a message and you will see the call appear in your recent calls list.

In Android devices, there is a ‘Caller ID & spam’ feature that is typically configured to be on by default. To turn on the feature, open up “Settings” and select ‘Caller ID & spam’ to toggle it on.

To add an additional layer of protection from spam calls, add a third-party app like Truecaller (iOS and Android) or Call Blocker (Android) that helps you identify spam calls and text messages and automatically blocks them. Both apps are free to download, but also offer paid subscriptions to remove the ads and give you access to a larger spammers blacklist.

At the end of the day, even with all of these initiatives and measures in place, you will not be able to completely block all of the spam or robocalls from trickling in, but you should be able to greatly reduce the amount you receive. Spammers will always find ways and loopholes and game the system for profit.

But most importantly, remember the most basic rules when dealing with annoying and infuriating spam and robocalls:

Just don’t respond to them!

Don’t interact with them. Don’t call them back. Don’t ask to be removed from their list.

As previously mentioned, if you don’t recognize the number, don’t even bother picking it up because it tells the scammers or people searching for valid numbers to sell to robocallers, that your number works and is active.