By Ron Hurtibise
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Armed with sophisticated but easy-to-use tools, robocallers made a record 3.36 billion of the annoying, automated sales, debt collection and scam pitches to United States consumers in April.
“Don’t hang up. Our records indicate you may qualify for a reduction or even forgiveness of your student loan debt.”
“You have been pre-selected to receive a cellular home security system absolutely free.”
“This is your final courtesy call before we are unable to lower your credit card interest rate.”
You’re not imagining things: The number of annoying robocalls to our mobile and landline phones are increasing month by month.
Armed with sophisticated but easy-to-use tools, robocallers made a record 3.36 billion of the annoying, automated sales, debt collection and scam pitches to United States consumers in April, a 6.5 percent increase over the previous record in March, and nearly a 34 percent hike over April 2017, according to a monthly index of the 50 most-robocalled cities in America by YouMail, a robocall blocking service.
Florida cities are among the nation’s most robocalled, according to the YouMail index. In April, Miami ranked 13th and Fort Lauderdale ranked 14th out of the 50 most-robocalled U.S. cities. And according to a news release by the National Consumer Law Center, Florida is on pace in 2018 to exceed 2017’s record total of more than 2.2 billion received robocalls.
While Fort Lauderdale and Miami are among the nation’s largest population centers and would occupy top spots in any by-the-numbers rankings, several major metro areas ranked below 35th place, including Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; San Antonio, Texas.; Boston, Mass.; and St. Louis, Mo.
Sensitive to growing anger from consumers, lawmakers are searching for ways to tamp down the problem.
New restrictions take effect July 1 in Florida. The U.S. Senate is calling upon the major phone service carriers to get more proactive. And last month, a Senate committee subpoenaed Miami’s accused “robocall king”, who is facing a $120 million fine for allegedly making nearly 100 million robocalls in 2016, to explain why robocalling continues to grow in such large numbers.
Florida also generated a high rate of complaints about unwanted telecommunications calls to the Federal Trade Commission during the 2017 fiscal year. The state ranked third, with 2,853 complaints per 100,000 residents, behind New Jersey and Delaware. Of 588,210 total complaints from Floridians, 62 percent were specifically about robocalls, 37 percent were about live callers, and the rest were unspecified.
Debt-reduction services topped the list of pitch types that fueled Floridians’ complaints by a three-to-one margin over second-place “vacation and timeshares.” Rounding out the top seven were “warrantees and protection plans,” “impostors,” “medical and prescriptions,” “home security and alarms,” and “computer and technical support.”
Asked why Florida logged five cities on YouMail’s top 50 most-robocalled list, two experts from the National Consumer Law Center said they could not say with certainty. Margot Saunders, the law center’s senior counsel, said a large factor is obviously Florida’s status as the nation’s third most populous state. The large number of large- and midsize cities make it an attractive target for robocallers looking for area codes with lots of phone numbers, she said.
Stephen Rouzer, the center’s senior communications strategist, said the state’s large population of seniors also makes it an enticing target for scammers, while its low per-capita income level makes residents more likely to use credit cards and payday lenders _ industries responsible for large percentages of robocalls.
Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, added that “scammers will call more in areas where people answer scam calls and have proven to fall for them.”
Internet dialing via easy-to-obtain software is driving the increase in robocalls, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in an April 18 hearing.
The high-volume calling software, which makes phone calls over the Internet rather than traditional copper-wire exchanges, has made it easy for rogue operators to route calls through overseas servers, skirting laws intended to protect consumers from robocallers, Thune said.
“These new technologies have also made it easier for scammers to hide from law enforcement and seek to gain their victims’ trust by displaying fake caller ID information,” Thune said.
By generating phony caller ID numbers with the same area codes as the destination numbers, the software tricks respondents into thinking they are being dialed from a local business.
“The simple fact is the Do Not Call’ list is totally ineffectual against them,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The April 18 hearing featured testimony from Adrian Abramovich, the Miami entrepreneur accused of making 96 million spoofed robocalls, in violation of federal law, over three months in late 2016 to sell “exclusive” vacation deals.
According to a complaint by the Federal Communications Commission, Abramovich deliberately falsified caller IDs to make targets think the calls were local, then programmed the recorded voices to convince targets they were calling from well-known companies such as Marriott, Hilton, Expedia and TripAdvisor.
People who pressed numbers seeking more information were instead transferred to foreign call centers and pitched vacation packages that often involved timeshares.
Facing $120 million in fines, Abramovich invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination at the hearing and denied all of the charges against him. But speaking “generally,” he said robocalling software able to “make thousands of automated phone calls with the click of a button” is easily downloadable. Also advertised online are companies offering long-distance carrier services that can handle “millions upon millions of calls,” he said.
“Clearly, regulation needs to address the carriers and providers and require the major carriers to detect robocalls activity,” Abramovich said before declining to answer questions from senators about his case.
At the hearing, Saunders pointed out that contrary to popular belief, scams are just a fraction of robocalls, and that most come from legitimate companies.
“As can be surmised from the huge number of debt collection robocalls made in the U.S., one-third of all American consumers have accounts in collection,” she told the committee.
She noted that ACA International, a trade group representing collection agencies, creditors, debt buyers, collection attorneys and debt collection industry service providers, has been a primary driver of efforts before the FCC to roll back consumer protections in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
Despite the seeming failure of regulators to bring robocalling under control, states and the federal government keep trying to rein in abuses.
In the wake of numerous tweaks and updates to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, Blumenthal last month introduced a bill he called “the Robocop bill,” which would require phone carriers to offer effective tools to combat abusive robocalls at no additional cost to consumers, while continuing to allow recorded calls from legitimate emergency services.
Meanwhile, two bills aimed at curbing robocall abuses sailed through the recently completed Florida legislative session and will take effect July 1. One outlaws ringless delivery calls, which go straight to voicemail; increases fines for offenders; and requires solicitors to display numbers that can actually receive return calls on consumers’ caller IDs. The other bill reinforces a recent FCC rule change that gives phone carriers the authority to stop robocalls before they can be delivered.
YouMail creates its monthly most-robocalled index by taking “tens of millions of calls made each month to YouMail users” and projecting those across U.S. cities, which are identified not by municipal boundaries but by telephone area codes. So what the site identifies as Fort Lauderdale is actually all of Broward County because it shares the 954 area code. Likewise, Miami is the region that shares the 305 area code, and West Palm Beach is defined by consumers with the 561 area code.
Targets in Miami received 46.3 million robocalls during the month, 2.1 million more than in March. The 43.6 million robocalls sent to Fort Lauderdale residents in April exceeded March’s total by 4.2 million, the tally showed.