Of all the annoyances in the world – and there are many – robocalls, those telephone calls made to you by a recording, have to rank among the most obnoxious. After all, if someone is trying to convince you to buy a product or service, make a donation or give them your vote, the very least they could do is have a real live person contact you. Although most robocalls are simply annoying, they’ve taken a more ominous turn in recent years. They aren’t being used just persuade you to buy or donate something anymore; now criminals are using them in an attempt to rob you.


Robocalls Have Gone High-Tech

Machines capable of making pre-recorded automated calls using large blocks of phone numbers have been around since at least the late 1970s, but today’s technology has made the the irritating marketing technique more effective, affordable and widespread. Using Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology and cheap software, telemarketers, criminals and fraudsters are able to cloak their real originating phone number with numbers that use the same area code and prefix as the local area they’re calling, even if they’re in a foreign country. Adding to the effectiveness of these high-tech robocalling systems is the technical ability to closely mimic the human voice, to the point that many people think they’re talking to a real person rather than a machine.

The IRS Is Trying to Reach You … or Maybe Not

A good example of such scams is a recent case in which con artists were robocalling people with threatening messages, saying the caller was an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. Here’s one of the messages that was left on one target’s cellphone:

“This is the IRS regarding your tax filings, from the headquarters, which will get expired in next 24 working hours. And once it gets expired, after that you will be taken under custody by the local cops, as there are four serious allegations pressed on your name at this moment. We would request you to get back to us so we can discuss about this case before taking any legal action against you. The number to reach us is — — —. I repeat — — —. Thank You.”

Now, you might not think that many people would be fooled by such a poorly worded message, clearly composed by a person for whom English is a second language. Yet, many people did fall victim to this scam. When they called the number back, they were routed to an overseas call center in which operators convinced them to hand over personal information or even wire large sums of cash to avoid going to jail.

These robocalls were investigated by a security company called Pindrop. Using sophisticated neural analysis software on the recorded messages, they were able to determine that the calls were coming from three separate groups of scammers, all of them outside of the U.S.

New Technology to Fight Robocalls

In late 2015, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which regulates telemarketers and fights fraud committed over the phone, held a contest called “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back.” The idea was to encourage companies to develop new technologies to identify and block such calls. The winner of the competition not only won but also received a $25,000 prize with an application called RoboKiller. Users can subscribe to the service, which, in a nutshell, answers the call while still playing a ringing signal. Humans will wait for the phone to be answered, while robocalls will start their message as soon as the system detects an answer

The war against robocalls is being fought on the technological battlefield, and it promises to be a long fight. With any luck, the good guys will prevail.

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