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Robocalls and their role in elections

“Hi! This is annoying election scam robocaller No. 23,409! With less than a week left until the election, we’re calling to see if you could Make Our Scammy Profits Great Again—please do your part by pressing three RIGHT NOW!”

That’s the gist of what many of us have been hearing when we pick up our phones: the spiels of robocallers blitzing us with scripts custom-tailored for the election season—often, scripts that are designed to leverage our political leanings in order to rip us off. A recent survey conducted by Avira showed that when it comes to election chicanery, robocalling fraudsters, straight from Dante’s eighth circle of Hell, were cited as the second most common scam by US voters. Only misinformation ranked higher as a threat to free and fair elections.

That’s just one result of Avira’s survey, which is titled The Election Hack: How People in the US, Germany and Hong Kong Fear Technology and Social Media Will Impede National Elections. The survey included input from 2,000 participants in those three countries, all of which have impending elections. Although feelings varied from country to country and by gender, age and industry, there were consistent trends: overall, most people don’t think that their upcoming elections will be free and fair. As well, respondents in all three countries say that disinformation on social media is the main hindrance, with the second most prevalent threat—election scams, and most particularly robocall election scams—being simply the norm in today’s world.

The majority of those surveyed in the US—55%—either know or believe they’ve encountered an election-related scam. The most cited threat (23%) was fake news with “a clear political motivation”. Robocalls came in second, at 18%. Fifty-nine percent of US respondents say they’ve received unwanted, direct communication from political candidates, mostly in the form of emails (34%), but also via phone calls (30%) and text messages (25%). And in the face of our digital usage patterns being sucked up and used to tailor political advertising at us with laser precision, 64% of Americans feel that doing so should be illegal.


Robocalls: Just annoying, or downright dangerous?

Robocalls aren’t just a nuisance. Nor are they merely fraudulent. They’re also a cudgel, used by political campaigners to pummel elections into heading in a desired direction. Tactical Tech—an NGO that tracks technology’s impact on society—recently noted that political campaigners employ a host of “hidden, pervasive and persuasive” methods, many borrowed from the fields of marketing, statistics and psychology, to advance their agendas, sway our views and influence our votes.

In a report published in June, Tactical Tech cited numerous examples of political campaigns misusing texting and robocalls. Here are a few:

  • In Canada’s 2011 federal election, residents in several electoral districts were subjected to a voter suppression campaign driven by robocalls spreading misinformation about polling stations and polling locations on election day.
  • In the run-up to the 2019 elections in India, free smartphones were given to voters … and then targeted with calls from the campaign of the state’s Chief Minister. As well, data gathered via the robocalling campaign was used to send party activists to visit voters who planned to vote for the opposition.
  • In 2016, UK voters who consented to receiving text messages regarding leisure, home improvements and insurance wound up getting spammed by the Leave.EU campaign.

We’ve also seen racist robocalls that attacked mail-in voting in a Michigan election. As the Detroit News reported in August, the state’s top election and legal officials denounced a robocall campaign in Detroit that was spreading misinformation about absentee ballots. The 37-second call falsely claimed that voters who apply for and use the ballots are handing over personal information that may be used by police to exercise warrants, by credit card companies to collect debts, and by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “track people for mandatory vaccines.”

“Don’t be [inaudible] into giving your private information to the man. Stay safe, and beware of vote by mail,” the robocall message stated, according to a copy of the recording provided by the office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

How is this legal?

Unfortunately, while robocalls are generally illegal in the US—unless you’ve given your written permission for a company to robo-plague you, that is—Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules make exceptions for political calls about candidates running for office, charities asking for donations, debt collection, some calls from healthcare providers, or purely informational calls.

The FTC has repeatedly tried to crack down on these outfits. In June 2019, it announced a huge crackdown—Operation Call It Quits—in which it targeted the operators behind 1 billion illegal robocalls. Or, using verbiage more appropriate to our current robocall nightmare, “a drop in the bucket.” According to the Robocall Index maintained by the spam-call blocker company YouMail, there were an estimated 3.7 billion robocalls placed in the month of August 2020 alone. Still, any dent in that number is welcome.

At the end of March, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered all wireless carriers to implement a technology framework by June 2021 to filter out robocalls. That deadline is consistent with Congress’s direction in the TRACED (Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence) Act, signed into law and signed by the president in December 2019.

The technology framework, called STIR/SHAKEN, has been kicking around for years. The FCC says STIR/SHAKEN should help to protect consumers against malicious caller ID spoofing, often used in robocall scams: for example, illegal robocallers love to spoof numbers to make it look like calls are coming from a local neighbor, thus robo-dragging millions of hapless consumers away from what should be their robot-free dinners.

Short for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-Based Handling of Asserted Information Using ToKENs, STIR/SHAKEN is a pair of network protocols that use digital certificates to verify that the number on caller ID is the number that actually placed the call, as opposed to one of the many flavors of robocalling scammers who’ve been pestering us like growing swarms of gnats. According to YouMail, people in the US received 58.5 billion robocalls in 2019: a number that was up 22% over the previous year.

What STIR/SHAKEN doesn’t do: block spoofed numbers. The protocols don’t identify bad actors. Rather, they enable carriers to authenticate calls, after which consumers will be able to tell if a number is likely to be a robocall. The FCC does claim, however, that STIR/SHAKEN :”should establish a reliable authentication system that will help strengthen call-blocking services and unmask spoofed calls.”

The proof will be in the pudding. But as it now stands, we’re nine months short of a “solution” that may or may not block spoofed numbers. Where does that leave us? With the need to protect ourselves, that’s where.

How to avoid phony election robocalls

You may well ask why you still get calls in spite of being on the Do Not Call list. One reason is that it’s not a technology fix; rather, it’s a list for companies that actually care about the legality of what they’re doing. As the FTC advises, it does not, and cannot, block calls; nor does the DNC registry stop calls from scammers who ignore it.

So how do you stop the barrage of robocalls? When asked how they plan to protect their privacy on digital devices during the election season, 23% of survey participants in the US cited robocall protection: the second most popular choice after antivirus, which was tied with private browsers. Avira has partnered with YouMail to offer its robocall-blocking services.

For more tips on how to block political robocalls, check out this article from Lifewire.

Do NOT press 1, or 3, or ANYTHING!

Besides wrestling robocallers in the courtroom, the FTC’s Operation Call It Quits also had an educational component regarding how to stop unwanted calls. Though it might be old hat for many of us, it’s a must-read for anybody who still thinks that if they’re told to “press 1 to speak to an operator”, they should actually do that …in the hope, perhaps, of screaming some human ears off?

Here’s the advice, in a nutshell: Don’t press anything. Pressing any buttons (besides the one to hang up the call) is like rubbing “living human” pheromones onto yourself before you go into the dank robocaller basement. The FTC says you should hang up without pressing any options, block the number, and then report it to the Commission. Andrew Smith, the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, said that pushing buttons is the most common mistake people receiving robocalls tend to make.

“Pressing numbers to speak to someone or remove yourself from the list will probably only lead to more robocalls,” he said during a press conference.

Typically, the robocallers give you two options: Press one to speak with a customer service rep—or what’s better known as a scammer—or press two to be removed from their calling list.

In a word: Don’t! Punching any number just leads to more calls. Robcalling is a numbers game: they place a massive number of calls, most of which go to dead or inactive numbers. If you press a button, it lets the scammers know that they’ve not only hit a live number, but that they’ve hit on somebody willing to answer calls from unknown callers.

Be very, very quiet: just back out of that robocaller basement without the scammers getting a whiff of fresh meat, hang up, and block/report the number.

Lisa has been writing, editing and setting editorial direction in technology publications since 1995, including 12 years as reporter/executive editor at eWEEK/PC WEEK; 9 years as a main content creator for Sophos's award-winning Naked Security cybersecurity blog; and contract work for SentinelOne, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, and IT Expert Voice, et al.
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