Americans received about 48 billion robocalls last year, many illegal, involving thousands of different kinds of scams, resulting in billions of dollars in losses.
Granite Staters, according to the National Consumer Law Center, received about 107 million robocalls in 2018.
Brandon Garod, Senior Assistant Attorney General and Chief of the N.H. Consumer Protection Bureau, says robocalls have been around for a long time – and not all are nefarious.
“For a long time they served a very legitimate purpose. Then they were referred to as telemarketers, sending out mass phone calls to try and solicit legitimate business. The difference now is that scam artists have used technology to essentially disguise who they are in order to use illegitimate methods to try and trick people into giving them money,” he said on The Exchange.
(For the full conversation visit here. Quotes in this story have been slightly edited for clarity and length.)
With “neighborhood spoofing,” says Garod, a call appears to be coming from your area code, making it more likely that you’ll be tricked into answering the call. But the call is actually from somewhere else, possibly even from overseas.
In an effort to thwart these scammers, N.H. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, along with several other AGs, announced a major partnership between 51 attorneys general and USTelecom, the broadband association representing telecommunications-related companies.
“The goal is to implement technology that will give consumers the ability to trust that the number that shows up on their cell phone is actually the number that it’s coming from,” Garod said. “It’s called authentication. It took a while to develop the technology and it will take a while to get it implemented across all the major telecommunications carriers.”
Meanwhile, Garod’s advice is often pretty simple: Just don’t pick up the phone -- unless you’re certain of the caller.
“These scam artists are really, really good. We've seen really smart, educated, intelligent people fall victim to these scams because these scam artists are professionals. They have it down to a science. And the more you answer your phone, the more your phone gets labeled as a live line, a line that somebody is willing to answer.”
Garod says in his seven years as a prosecutor these cases have been among the hardest to prosecute.
“I've prosecuted all different types of crimes in the state. These are the most difficult perpetrators to identify. And they are the most difficult perpetrators to actually arrest and bring criminal actions against. It's almost impossible in most cases because they are for the most part overseas," Garod said.
"They spoof their phone numbers. They spoof their email addresses. They spoof their IP addresses. We can usually identify the country that the calls are originating from, but that's about as far as we can take it. So we are left essentially at this point powerless to actually arrest and prosecute these perpetrators."
And the Do Not Call List?
“Usually legitimate businesses will abide by that,” says Garod. “If they don’t, they’re breaking the law.”
Who are the bad actors out there and how do they operate?
Patrick Halley, Senior vice president of policy and advocacy for USTelecom, says illegal robocalls are part of a complex system: "There are multiple hops involved. The person who originates the call has a deal with some carrier or wholesale provider and then it goes from them to somebody else, to somebody else and then it ends up on your doorstep. Our Traceback group is a coordinated industry effort to educate all of the carriers in that ecosystem as to who the bad actors are -- and then share that information with law enforcement."
Amanda Noonan, Director of Consumer Services at the N.H. Public Utilities Commission, says scam calls involving utility services are on the rise in New Hampshire. By June of 2019, the PUC had received about 200 complaints – about twice as many as had been received in all of 2018. These callers pretend to represent gas or utility companies.
“They're often threatening disconnection of utilities services if payment isn't received immediately. And that's of grave concern to us. It affects more vulnerable customers, elderly, and those for whom English isn’t their first language. And it also affects small businesses because they're targeted, as the loss of electricity means lost sales and lost revenue.”
No single solution
Halley says these illegal callers are nimble, figuring out how to work around technological solutions, engaging in a kind of technological arms race.
"No single state A.G., no federal agency, no company can solve this completely. So there's really a three-pronged attack here: Provide consumers with call-blocking technology. Authenticate calls so that we know that a call is legitimate, not a spoofed number -- that's being rolled out by the industry as we speak. And the third is our Traceback program -- when we try to find the source of the calls."
Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumer Reports says these efforts are a long time coming – but welcome.
"We've been pushing the phone companies for years to do more to provide effective solutions from robocalls. We are pleased that there are steps that are appearing to be made," she said. "We support bipartisan legislation in Congress that would require phone companies to implement robocall technology, and the agreement between major phone companies and the state Attorneys General to provide these services for free."
The role of the FCC and the A.G.
Mohoney also said the FCC must also make sure that phone companies actually comply with new rules and regulations -- and that they're effective for consumers.
In June, according to Mahoney, the FCC clarified that phone companies can offer call blocking tools on an opt-out basis, meaning that phone companies have more leeway to identify and stop robocalls without asking the consumer's explicit permission first.
"However, the FCC has so far failed to require the phone companies to implement these technologies," she said. "And it's really important for all the phone companies to be participating so consumers have the protections they need. Having mandatory protections in place is important to us."
Meanwhile, there are also plenty of legitimate robocallers representing legitimate companies, as well as government and public safety officials -- and they're concerned about being blocked. Halley says his group is working to avoid those situations and focus on the illegal calls, with the ultimate goal of helping people to trust their phones again.
Garod meanwhile says he hopes consumers will begin to see a big change in the numbers of calls they get due to all of these technological and legal changes.
“The Attorney General's office is a resource for consumers; we're here. If you have questions about the rollout, about best practices, please feel free to give us a call. And we're more than happy to educate you and provide any assistance.”