5Ws+1H: What It's About: Scammers aim for cell phone users

Many cell phone providers offer built-in features to help consumers detect phone scammers and avoid nuisance robocalls.

Due to the constant bombarding of robocalls people receive on a daily basis, ignoring calls from unknown numbers has become the norm.

Unwanted calls have become so problematic that the Federal Communications Commission receives more than 200,000 consumer complaints a year. The FCC announced a new set of anti-robocall actions March 17, including the issuance of a $225 million fine to Texas telemarketers for illegally spoofing approximately 1 billion robocalls to sell short-term, limited-duration health insurance plans.

“Unwanted robocalls are not only a nuisance, but they also pose a serious risk to consumers who can inadvertently share sensitive, personal information in response to bad actors’ malicious schemes,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

The Texas telemarketers – with robocalls falsely claiming to offer health insurance plans from well-known companies such as Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, and UnitedHealth group – received the largest fine issued in FCC history. The FCC also delivered cease-and-desist letters to six voice providers for suspected robocalls Rosenworcel said should serve as a warning to other entities.

Adrien Nong, owner of START and IT specialist, said most people don’t like his answers when questioned about robocalls. He said 99 percent of them come from offshore call centers and go through spoofed lines. Spoofing is used by scammers to disguise the origin of the call. Oftentimes, the call will appear to be coming from somewhere in the same area code as the recipient.

“So it’s pretty similar to spam emails in the sense that it’s practically impossible to find the call centers for authorities to put a stop to them, and then there’s international law creating massive red tape,” said Nong. “Finding the call center itself is pretty hard.”

Those who watch a heavy amount of YouTube videos might have seen content creators troll these swindlers, pretending to be an unsuspecting victim, in an effort to waste their time and show people what lengths phone scammers will go to leverage authority over the recipient and try to steal their hard-earned dollars. This generally doesn’t stop them, though.

Nong said sometimes local authorities will get a tip and can shut down scammers.

“But it’s shutting down one of a billion and because the people on the call center side need the money so badly – generally third world countries – there’s an infinite supply of personnel to operate them for basically nothing,” he said.

Cell phone companies have built-in services with a moderately high success rate in detecting and labeling calls as spam, said Nong, but they can also miss some spoof calls or give false positives. He suggests people check with the service provider to see what kind of spam blocking services they offer. Most calls are labeled as spam, so they still ring, but give the recipient a chance to look at the phone and ignore it.

Many scammers claim to be debt collectors, but Nong said legitimate calls from debt collectors typically come from 800 numbers, as scammers don’t often use these 800 numbers because they are paid for.

The FCC has several tips for consumers to stop unwanted robocalls and avoid phone scams. If a consumer answers a phone and the caller, or a recording, asks the consumer to hit a button to stop getting the calls, they should hang up, as this can be a trick to identify potential targets.

People should not respond to any questions, especially ones that can be answered with “yes.” Scammers will record the consumer’s “yes” response to essentially obtain a voice signature to be used by scammers to pretend to be the consumer and authorize fraudulent charges over the phone.

Personal information – like Social Security numbers, account numbers, mother’s maiden names, passwords, or other identifying information – should never be given out over the phone.

Phone companies offer their own built-in features for blocking phone numbers. There are also a variety of third-party apps people can download to block telemarketing calls. Another way to block telemarketers is to register a phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry with the Federal Trade Commission. People can register their homes or mobile phones for free by visiting donotcall.gov.


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