How spam robocalls turned our phones against us

 
 
Posted3/23/2019 6:00 AM
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  • More than 10 billion robocalls have been placed so far in 2019, by call-blocking company YouMail's estimate -- almost double the same period a year before.

    More than 10 billion robocalls have been placed so far in 2019, by call-blocking company YouMail's estimate -- almost double the same period a year before. Associated Press File Photo

The phones have turned on us. Our little pocket pals seduced us with cheap long distance, unlimited texts, endless apps. Now they beep and shudder and flash with strange numbers at all hours of the day. We answer, and our beloved iPhone (or Android, or bedside landline) impales our eardrum with a cruiseline ad. It tries to sell us a medical back brace. It threatens to jail us unless we wire our life savings to the IRS.

Spam bots nest in call centers on every continent, spewing out phone calls by the millions, saturating the communication networks. Spam and scams swarm through our phones like Hitchcock's birds down the living-room chimney. There is no escape.

More than 10 billion robocalls have been placed so far in 2019, by call-blocking company YouMail's estimate -- almost double the same period a year before. Another report by First Orion, the call-blocking and caller-ID tech company, estimates that nearly half of all cellphone calls will be scams at some point this year.

Assuming the plague ever subsides, how will we forgive our phones?

Press 1 to be transferred to the nightmare realm.

"It started off two or three a day. As time went by it went to 50 or 60," said Matt Briscoe, who switched cell-service providers last summer and brought home the telephonic equivalent of a roach-infested couch.

Briscoe, who runs a community newspaper in Corpus Christi, Texas, hears from far more spambots than humans these days. On March 11 alone, he declined 44 calls purporting to originate from the 704 area code in Albemarle, North Carolina -- which, given the prevalence of number spoofing, probably means the caller is anywhere but Albemarle, North Carolina.

"This thing is just buzzing in my pocket constantly," Briscoe said, shortly before his conversation with The Washington Post was interrupted by his eighth spam call of the morning. "If it's something that seems odd, I won't answer. If I do, nine times out of 10, it's: 'Hello! Would you like to be connected to a health insurance specialist?'"

He has the voice down pat: the cheerful, soulless "Hello!" of a spambot inviting you into an abyssal call center from which you may never return. You've probably heard such a voice yourself.

If not, you will.

Press 2 and scream to disconnect this call.

When Cabot Phillips stepped into the elevator at his apartment building in Alexandria, Virginia, one evening last month, the elevator was talking.

"Excuse me, is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?" a muffled, presumably human voice said from inside the emergency speaker. Phillips had assumed the speaker was for the fire department. Now, as he ascended to his home, it seemed to be asking him in broken English for $299 in IT charges.

"Sir, you are illegible for your labor, OK?" the spam said.

"Dude, you're calling an elevator," Philips said, and proceeded to his door. He later reflected, "I was hoping an elevator was still a sacred location for peace."

Press 3 for desperate prayer.

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam. Surely this is spam's most powerful incarnation yet. Earlier outbreaks were at least contained to our email inboxes, or hampered by the relatively primitive telemarketing technology of the last century. Now spam teleports into our purses and nightstands and innermost lives, advertising gastric balloons, demanding debt payments, speaking languages we don't understand. Spam dispatched by fly-by-night ministries even offers to pray for us.

If you plotted a graph of a phone call's usefulness from Alexander Graham Bell's first in 1876 until today, it would climb steadily through the 20th century, rocket skyward with the advent of mobile phones, and then take a U-turn and slap us around the ears with everything the machines have learned.

"We've returned right back to where we were in the '80s," said Jeffrey A. Hansen, an IT consultant who has testified as an expert witness in dozens of consumer lawsuits against robodialers. "Same software. The only difference now is computers are exponentially faster. Tens of millions (of calls) versus thousands."

Hansen traces the phone spam era back to 1974, when two men in Colorado patented an "automatic telephone caller" that simply dialed numbers in numerical sequence -- 555-1111, 555-1112 -- and blared a prerecorded message at whomever picked up. The technology improved with call centers' profit margins. By the early 1980s, Computerworld magazine was advertising $13,000 Davox terminals that fused a monitor, keyboard and a phone handset into a telemarketer's dream machine. Brrrrring brrrrring!

Press 4 if this sounds familiar.

In 1991, a committee room full of U.S. senators listened to an answering machine recording that had been annoying people across the country. A disembodied voice boomed over Hawaiian background music: "Just think about that, you and a friend or a loved one enjoying the beautiful beaches of Waikiki, and call me at 1-900-321-6666."

"Telannoyers," as some called them, were so endemic at the time that Congress passed laws restricting them, followed by the Do-Not-Call Registry in 2003. For a few years, it seemed like phone spam was contained. Then came the age of cellphones, international VoIP calls, and offshore call centers that can mask their location to make it look like they are calling you from down the block. Then came the Trump administration's deregulatory zeal, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai celebrated a 2018 court ruling undoing Obama-era restrictions on autodialers.

In April, a Senate subcommittee convened once again to discuss the phone-spam crisis. They interrogated a Florida telemarketer named Adrian Abramovich, who was accused of placing nearly 100 million robocalls with spoofed caller IDs.

"I'm not the kingpin of robocalling that is alleged," Abramovich protested. "I receive four or five robocalls a day ... I've been receiving more than ever, myself. Usually I never answer the phone."

Press 0 to speak to the void.

Abramovich had a point; the problem goes far beyond any one person or call center. Despite the government's $120 million dollar fine against him last May, the call-blocking company Hiya estimates spam calls increased nearly 50 percent in 2018. They come from all corners of the world -- from the marketing departments of major American banks and from clandestine call centers hidden above bars in Delhi, India.

More and more, the spam makes us mistrustful of our own ears.

"I got one just the other night," said Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center. "Someone said, 'Hello Cathy.' I said, there's no Cathy here. A voice said, 'Oh, that's OK. Since I got you ... 'It took a few minutes to figure out I wasn't talking to a real person. It's a robot! There's a company making snippets of recorded voice which operators in India press buttons to implement."

Your torment may be recorded for quality assurance.

When Paul Romer got a 6 a.m. call from an unrecognized number at his home in New York last fall, he assumed it was spam and went back to sleep. He later learned it was from Sweden; he'd won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Courtney Kelsey, 21, made the same mistake when she answered her spam-infested iPhone in St. Louis this month, and the man on the other end struggled to pronounce her name.

"I asked him to -- whatever list I'm on or wherever they're calling from, could they take me off the list?" Kelsey recalled. "He said, 'I can't hear you. Is this Courtney?' I just hung up."

She ignored a second call, blocked the number, and only later realized it was from the Ritz-Carlton, where she had applied for a serving job. Kelsey hadn't managed to reschedule the job interview by the time she spoke to The Washington Post this week.

Stay on the line to repeat this call forever.

So it's come to this. We confuse spambots for humans, and humans for spambots. The sci-fi author Charlie Stross once posited a future in which spam becomes so good at mimicking human interaction it becomes self-aware -- the "Spamularity." Is that what awaits us if the phones don't shut up?

Saunders, the consumer group lawyer getting spammed by human simulacrums, says the nightmare could be over within months if the telecom giants would invest more in anti-spam technology, which is now spotty at best -- or if the government would force them to (as the FCC's Pai has now indicated he might). If not, she said, the unsustainable status quo will continue.

In the meantime, Briscoe -- the Texas newspaper publisher besieged with health insurance calls from not-Albemarle, North Carolina -- has tried just about every spam-blocking app on the market.

"We've used Robokiller. That hasn't worked with this one at all," he said. "Hiya. Truecaller. Mr. Number. Not even close."

In desperation, he once tried staying on the line with the spam, perhaps hoping to plead for his sanity with the promised "health insurance specialist."

Instead, he said, an agent asked him for his height, weight, birth date and Social Security number. When Briscoe asked for an insurance license number, the agent supplied one as fake as whatever $299 anti-virus software is sold in an elevator.

Finally, Briscoe asked his tormentor who he worked for.

"You didn't want no (expletive) insurance anyway," the agent replied and, for a change, hung up on him.

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