Familiar-Looking Numbers Are The Latest Twist In Robocalls

Jul 31, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 4:43 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's something that may sound annoyingly familiar. Your cell phone rings, and the number that flashes across the screen has the same area code and prefix as yours. So you pick up, and gotcha (ph) - it's a telemarketer again. It's been happening nonstop to Ailsa Chang from NPR's Planet Money podcast, so she went to figure out why.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Planet Money asked listeners if they've been getting calls from phone numbers that look strangely similar to their own phone numbers. And in less than one hour, our Twitter account was exploding.

CHRIS GALLELO: I'll get a call. I'll see that it's from my area code, plus the same first three numbers.

OMAR WILLIAMS: Oh, my gosh, yeah. And I just got one about ten minutes before you called, as a matter of fact. Hi, this is Elizabeth from resorts, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, yeah (laughter).

ALEX NOSTRO: I had four different phone calls in that eight-minute span on Tuesday morning. I mean, these are all starting with my area code and my first three digits.

ELINOR JOHNSON: I picked the phone up and looked at the caller ID. And I guess I got a puzzled look on my face because my husband said, who's calling? And I said, apparently, we are because the number in the readout was our phone number.

CHANG: Chris Gallelo, Omar Williams, Alex Nostro and Elinor Johnson are all victims of what's called neighbor spoofing. It's when callers disguise their real phone numbers with a fake phone number that has the same area code and prefix as yours. The idea is you might be more likely to pick up because maybe you're thinking, this call could be my neighbor or my kid's school, someone I know.

Have you been spoofed?

AJIT PAI: Oh, absolutely.

CHANG: Even the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, cannot escape.

PAI: Every now and then, even on my work BlackBerry, I'll see call that seems to be coming...

CHANG: On your FCC cell phone?

PAI: Oh, yeah. It'll seem to be coming from the 202 area code, which is here in Washington, and then our prefix for these BlackBerries. And I know for a fact that, you know, it's probably not someone calling from the office. I know, you know, most of the folks who would be calling.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PAI: And sometimes, I answer just for the heck of it. And lo and behold, I've won a vacation from Marriott.

CHANG: The calls have gotten so aggravating to Pai, he is doubling down and making the fight against spoofers a top priority for the FCC. Robocalls and telemarketers are the No. 1 complaint the agency gets from the public. New technology has made spoofing easier to do and harder to detect. Last year, people received about 2.5 billion robocalls every month. It got hugely lucrative for scam artists.

PAI: These call centers that were uncovered in India just last year, for instance, were generating something like $150,000 every single day from American consumers who, upon receiving a call purporting to be from the IRS, were, naturally, scared - especially if they were elderly, or recent immigrants and the like - and were forking over money, even if they didn't owe it.

CHANG: So this spring, the FCC started investigating ways to let phone carriers block calls from spoofers.

Why aren't carriers already blocking spoof calls? Can you tell when calls are getting spoofed?

PAI: A few different reasons - one was, under the FCC's rules, carriers were obligated to patch through any calls that they got.

CHANG: But that's changed. Now, phone carriers are allowed to block some spoofing. The ultimate solution, says Pai, is a new system that can actually authenticate callers.

PAI: There is one unique identifier that is associated with a phone number, if you will. And so, when a call is placed using that phone number, the recipient of that call can have every confidence in knowing that, OK, this is the digital fingerprint for that number. I can trust that this is not a scam artist or somebody else who is impersonating the owner of that number.

CHANG: In the meantime, the FCC is using less fancy methods against spoofers. It recently proposed a record $120 million fine against a guy who allegedly spoofed 100 million robocalls last year. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES BRADLEY SONG, "THE TELEPHONE SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.