“Congratulations! You’ve been approved for a loan!” or “Contact the IRS urgently regarding unpaid income tax”. Sadly, you haven’t got a loan, or won a cruise, or whatever is being touted. You’re on the receiving end of a “robocall”. They’re on the rise and it’s now estimated that half of the calls we receive are spam! So, why are we getting so many robocalls? Blame the internet. It ushered in an era of cheap, easy calls to anywhere. Scammers, usually operating offshore, use the internet to dial up tens of thousands of potential victims—and you can’t even trust the caller ID.
Find out how dangerous robocalls can be to us, and even our government, plus what you can do to escape them. Help is at hand so don’t panic! You won’t need to go off grid.
What exactly is a robocall and is it just a nuisance?
Annoying would probably sum up the feelings of most recipients, but these calls can be so much more. Robocalls are automated telephone spam—an easy, low-cost way of reaching a vast target audience in the hope of sifting out the few who respond. Beware! Stay on the line or press any numbers, and you’ll be put through to stage 2: A real human who tries to reel you in and con you into handing over personal details or even paying a fee.
So, how should you react? See this handy summary here. As tempting as it might be to wait for an actual person to yell at, hang up immediately as if your bank balance and identity might depend on it (which they very well may). Consider this:
- According to the FTC Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book in 2019, there were 821,682 reports involving over $493 million dollars lost to ID theft and other scams, all from interactions that started from a phone call.
- One in 10 Americans are scammed annually by bogus calls and over 60 billion such calls are placed to the US every year.
- The 2019 Identity Fraud Study found that victims’ costs more than doubled from 2016 to 2018, with criminals focussing their attention on different financial accounts, such as loyalty and rewards programs, and retirement accounts.
Eroding trust and spreading fear
There’s another sinister agenda at work that doesn’t focus on financial gain, but preys on fears and spreads panic and misinformation. US voters received an estimated 10 million spam calls telling them to “stay safe and stay home” instead of voting, leaving election officials scrambling to reassure voters. For a great read on the role that robocalls played in the elections, see our blog here.
Strategies also evolve quickly to take advantage of the latest events, like the Coronavirus. In March, the World Health Organization issued a warning about criminals taking advantage of the pandemic, such as offering free virus test kits to collect personal and health insurance information. There was also a robocall message, apparently from the U.S. Department of Health, warning of an “outbreak in your area”. For the most common current scams, see this handy website from the US government.
Mum, is that you? Scammers are getting high-tech!
It’s always a race, with both sides using ever-more sophisticated tactics. Spoofing is widespread now, with callers falsifying the information transmitted to your display, so it looks as if the incoming call is from a local number, company you trust, or even a government agency. So, we’ve established that you can’t trust the ID or number of the person calling. Now, what about their voice?
Mum, is that really you? Artificial intelligence can power voice-mimicking software that was reportedly used in a major theft last year. Thieves imitated the voice of the CEO of a British energy company, conning his subordinate into sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to a secret account. The case was first reported by the Wall Street Journal here. Scammers tend to follow money though, so companies, celebrities, and even politicians will probably be the worst hit. Fortunately, it takes a lot of time, effort, and voice data to create a realistic spoof, so you’re (still) unlikely to hear from someone pretending to be your mum. Do answer when she calls, please, but not before reading on for some important new security developments.
Here’s a Quantum of Solace
Major players in telecommunications, together with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, have collaborated to create a new industry standard for caller ID verification. It’s called STIR/SHAKEN, which is nearly as smooth as the Bond martini it’s named after. Calls that come in through dodgy routes, such as unverified overseas phone services, are flagged or blocked, making it much easier to unmask scammers.
“American consumers are sick and tired of unwanted robocalls, this consumer among them. Caller ID authentication will be a significant step towards ending the scourge of spoofed robocalls. It’s time for carriers to implement robust caller ID authentication,” says FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. All voice providers will have to implement STIR/SHAKEN by mid-2021.
A match made in security heaven? Meet the new “Robocops”
You may have heard of YouMail. The app-based service uses sophisticated, patented technology to block robocalls and phishing messages. Avira aims to protect people in the connected world with an award-winning portfolio of solutions that extend to Android and iOS phones. Now, these security specialists have teamed up, and the result is pretty formidable! The new Robocall feature, powered by YouMail, is available as part of Avira Prime Mobile in the US and Canada.
Travis Witteveen, CEO of Avira, comments:
“We’re proud to partner with YouMail to offer another layer of protection to our customers in North America through their best-in-class robocall blocking technology.”
What should you do right now?
Always exercise extreme caution on the phone and follow this list of tips:
- Never respond to calls or texts from unknown numbers and don’t click on links.
- Never share personal or financial information via email, text messages, or over the phone.
- Be extra cautious if you’re being pressured to make any payment immediately.
- Remember that government agencies will never call you to ask for payment or personal information.
- Always check personally with the friend or company in question before responding to a strange text that may not be from them.
- Don’t scrimp on security! Premium, multi-layered protection for all your devices is available for a small monthly fee. Consider Avira Prime, which grants you access to every one of Avira’s premium solutions for protection, privacy, and performance.
- Ensure that your current smart phone protection includes a robocall blocker (now available as part of Avira Prime).