I was sitting at my kitchen table having lunch with my wife, when I got the call on my cell phone. I looked at the number on the screen, and it seemed that I was being called by Microsoft.
The thickly accented voice on the other end said the caller was from Microsoft’s security department, and told me that I had to take action immediately.
“I do?” I asked. The voice told me to turn to my computer and start typing in a command. I looked at the hamburger on my plate with one bite taken out of it, and decided enough was enough. “Don’t ever call me again,” I said. “But, but…” the caller objected, so I continued, explaining that I was calling the police on my other line. The caller hung up.
That was my first lunchtime robocall for the day, but the second came a few minutes later. I just disconnected that one. My hamburger was getting cold.
Robocalls have become a national problem and for most people they’re a worse problem than they are for me. People are losing millions of dollars from calls purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service, or they’re opening their computers and networks to malware because of those phony security service or tech support calls.
Sometimes those calls are attempts to siphon millions of dollars from companies and sometimes they play on the fears of friends and colleagues who are told someone they know is in trouble.
The problem has been getting worse month over month to the point that the Federal Communications Commission has taken notice and is trying to encourage action. Over the last few days, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has written to carriers in the U.S., asking them to move forward on ways to solve the problem.
Now AT&T has stepped up to the plate and is offering to chair a strike force that will work on ways to end most robocalls, but so far that’s pretty much all that’s happened. Considering that the FCC letter came only a few days before, that may not seem surprise.
But the FCC first asked for action against robocallers a year ago, and told carriers that blocking those calls wasn’t against the law.
Since then, there hasn’t been much visible action by carriers to block robocalls, but this is one area where visibility and reality aren’t necessarily the same thing. It seems that some carriers are taking action, albeit quietly, to solve the problem. For example, Verizon has a number of potential solutions depending on which type of calling service you might be using.
Robocall Plague Won’t Be Easy to Solve Despite FCC Call for Action
T-Mobile has a robocall blocker on its Android phones provide by Hiya, but according to Hiya’s vice president of data, Jan Volzke, the carrier hasn’t been able to integrate a similar service for iOS devices. However, Hiya does make an iOS app available to users.
Other apps are available from other vendors. YouMail makes an app that provides third-party voicemail, which also includes robocall blocking. According to YouMail CEO Alex Quilici, the problem with robocalls is getting worse and he said that it’s getting harder to separate them out from legitimate calls.
“We have technologies that look at call patterns,” he said. YouMail has used those technologies to measure the level of robocalls and has produced a Robocall Index that tracks calls, callers and provides a robocall lookup service.
It turns out that calling patterns are the next step in fighting robocalls because, in the same way signature based antivirus had to give way to behavioral analysis, so fighting robocalls must change.
So how to tell what’s a robocall if you’re fighting them? According to Volzke, it’s not that hard. He gives an example of a single number generating as many as 5,000 calls in a few minutes as an indicator. Even a teenager in the house can’t make that many calls. Unfortunately, as quickly as the technology appears to fight those calls, the people that produce them change tactics in much the same way as the tactics of malware distribution change.
And that’s the problem with fighting robocalls. There is no obvious way to reliably block robocalls, especially given the ability of the callers to spoof any number and name they wish. Quilici said that the single most common number and name that shows up in calling logs as a robocall is from CapitalOne Bank, but as you might guess, it’s not the bank that’s calling.
Adding to the problem, carriers (or robocall blockers for that matter) don’t want to be in the position of blocking legitimate calls as they fight those that aren’t. You can only imagine the problem if a call from someone’s child in trouble got blocked by a wayward robocall blocker and that’s what everyone is trying to avoid.
In one sense, the problem with robocalls is a lot like the problem with malware, but with robocalls the target is a voice telephone line that’s not easily secured.
When telephones were originally developed, the idea was that you could call anyone, anywhere in the world. The problem now is that Robocalls can ring up thousands of people anywhere in just a few minutes. Fixing the threat of robocalls is dramatically more complex because of that.