State News
November 21, 2018

Robocalls on the rise in Vermont and elsewhere

By Anne Wallace Allen, VTDigger

Nuisance phone calls to Vermont numbers increased more than one-third between May and October this year.

The call-blocking service YouMail said about 5.1 million robocalls rang on 802 area codes in October – a rate of 171,000 per day, 7,000 per hour, or two per second. Each phone user in Vermont received eight of them, according to an index created by YouMail, which is in the business of helping phone users stop such calls.

The most common origins of the Vermont calls: a payment reminder call from Phoenix, Arizona; a caller identified as “Chase” in Tampa, Florida; and a Kohl’s department store debt collection service in San Antonio, Texas. Not far from the top of the list was a caller from Vermont’s own town of Shelburne, which YouMail couldn’t identify.

About a third of all robocalls are scams, said Alex Quilici, the CEO of YouMail. His company, based in Irvine, California, seeks to stop all robocalls for all of its customers, be they scams, debt collectors, or school and community announcements.

“We don’t make any judgment; it’s all the things that are automatically dialed,” he said.

Robocalls have risen at about the same proportion around the country as in Vermont in the last several months. One reason might be the election, which prompted a flurry of advertising in all forms.

Robocall-blocking companies say it’s also because as consumers decline to answer their phones, robocallers redouble their efforts.

First Orion, a company that sells call-blocking software for cellphone users, published its own study in September that found scam calls increased from 3.7 percent of total calls nationwide in 2017 to nearly 30 percent in 2018.

It is in the interest of call-blocking companies to emphasize that unwanted calls are increasing. But many other sources bear out the perception that they are, including the state and federal agencies that take complaints from consumers.

“We have seen an increase in these calls as well,” said Elliott Greenblatt, coordinator of the AARP’s Vermont Fraud Watch.

YouMail said call-blocking apps tend to work better on Android phones than on iPhones. The company said iPhone users get 22 percent more scam calls, 32 percent more payment reminders calls, and 25 percent more telemarketing calls.

As the scammers grow more skilled, their opponents are working hard on solutions. An Arizona State University professor has patented technology that will help phones recognize when calls are legitimate.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  is working on solutions with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where unwanted calls are the top consumer complaint. The calls are also prompting action at the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, which, with 33 other AG offices in October, asked the FCC to do more to block illegal calls.

“Spoofing,” where callers disguise their own phone number so it appears local to the consumer, is illegal in Vermont. The FCC, which is working with the FTC to stop unwanted calls, said it has fined illegal callers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said in a statement that robocall companies have found ways to evade a call blocking order the FCC issued last year.

Donovan’s office has a plan to alert Vermont phone users to new scams –although doing so does involve more phone activity. As the office becomes aware of new trends or novel scams, “we can send out an alert to thousands of Vermonters and they can receive an email, text or voicemail about that scam,” said Chris Curtis, chief of the attorney general’s public protection division.

The problem’s still bigger in other places. According to YouMail, Vermont doesn’t even make the top 50 most-called area codes per capita or by any other measure. That honor goes to Atlanta (which ranks highest nationwide for robocalls received), Dallas, New York and Los Angeles.

Not everyone gets a robocall every four days, said Quilici. He said about a third of phone users get one to three each day, and about 20 percent get only one or two per month.

“A lot of robocalling is random; that’s the starting point,” he said. “But if you answer a call your number is labeled ‘hot,’ so they make sure to call it. If you answer, you will get more calls.”

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