Nearly half of cellphone calls will be scams by 2019, report says

Published Sept. 20, 2018

Nearly half of all cellphone calls next year will come from scammers, according to First Orion, a company that provides phone carriers and their customers caller ID and call blocking technology.

The Arkansas-based firm projects an explosion of incoming spam calls, marking a massive leap from 3.7 percent of total calls in 2017 to more than 29 percent this year, to a projected 45 percent by early 2019.

"Year after year, the scam call epidemic bombards consumers at record-breaking levels, surpassing the previous year and scammers increasingly invade our privacy at new extremes," Charles Morgan, the chief executive and head data scientist of First Orion, said in a blog post last week.

The barrage of fraudulent calls has taken a more dire turn in recent months, as scammers have targeted immigrant communities with urgent calls claiming ambiguous legal trouble. Across several U.S. metropolitan areas with large Chinese populations, scam callers have posed as representatives of the Chinese embassy while trying to trick Chinese immigrants and students into revealing their credit card numbers. The scammers told people that they have a package ready to be picked at the Chinese consulate office, a first step in a ruse, or that they need to turn over information to resolve a legal issue, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Other prominent spam calls involve fraudsters pretending to be a representative from a bank, a debt collector or cable company.

The Internal Revenue Service has also warned taxpayers about phone scams. Callers use telephone numbers that mimic actual IRS assistance centers, claim to be IRS employees and use fake names and phony badge numbers. The IRS says that victims are falsely told they owe money to the government and are urged to pay up through a gift card or wire transfer. Scammers may also take advantage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence, the IRS warned. Scammers can pose as a charitable organization, preying off the generosity of Americans who wish to help those affected by the storm.

Scammers also trick people into answering their calls with a scheme known as neighborhood spoofing, in which they manipulate caller ID information so that their actual phone number is masked. Instead, the calls appear to have been placed locally. A person looking at their caller ID will see a number that matches their own area code, as if the caller is a neighbor or a relative. Because the number appears familiar, people are more likely to answer the call.

More than half of all complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission - more than 200,000 of them - are about unwanted calls. The FCC said Americans received about 2.4 billion unwanted, automated calls every month, according to 2016 estimates.

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Charles Kennedy, a senior adjunct fellow at the tech policy think tank TechFreedom, said the problem of spam calls is difficult to solve because many of the offenders are hard to track down. It's illegal for telemarketers to call someone whose number is on the national do-not-call registry, unless they have an existing business relationship or the phone owner's explicit written permission. But Kennedy said that people who ignore the list or engage in deception are often hard to hold to account. They make calls from abroad, obscure their locations and place a tremendous number of calls.

Technological, rather than legal, solutions hold more promise, Kennedy said, as phone carriers develop methods to block scammers before they reach consumers and to unmask their spoofed numbers.

Certain apps can block calls from known scammers, but First Orion noted that the tools can be ineffective if fraudulent callers use numbers that aren't already blacklisted. To combat robo-calls and caller ID spoofing, the FCC has allowed phone carriers to block calls that may be illegal and has taken action against scammers, issuing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. Earlier this year, the FCC issued a $120 million fine against a Florida man who allegedly made nearly 100 million robo-calls offering people exclusive vacation deals.