Episode 789: Robocall Invasion

Aug 18, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 12:11 pm

Warning: This episode contains some explicit language.

There are now a billion robocalls going to cellphones and landlines every month. Many of them look like they're from your neighbor.

It's not really your neighbor, of course. It's neighbor spoofing--which means using the internet to make it look like a scammer (who could be anywhere in the world) is calling from your area.When we asked our listeners if it's been happening to them... right away, we got about a thousand responses.

We know the basics: Scammers are impersonating nearby numbers. But why is it suddenly so popular? Who is on the other end of the line? And can they be stopped?

We talk to anti-spam specialists, the head of the FCC, and, scariest of all, we pick up the phone and talk back to the scammers.

Music: "Get It Get It" and "Wildoff." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SALLY HELM, HOST:

Quick warning - there are a lot of bad words in this show, some offensive language. Probably don't listen with kids.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

We have been getting flooded by these bizarro phone calls. They are scam phone calls, but that's not the weird part. The weird part is that they appear to be coming from a phone number that is almost exactly the same as our phone number.

HELM: So say my number is, I don't know, 646-898-1234, then I'm getting a call from 6-4-6...

MALONE: Same area code...

HELM: ...8-9-8...

MALONE: ...Same next three numbers...

HELM: ...7-7-7-7.

MALONE: ...Different last four numbers.

HELM: And I think, oh, this is probably my pharmacy; maybe this is my neighbor down the street. And so I pick up. But no.

MALONE: Nope. It is almost always a robot lady.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRERECORDED VOICE #1: Well, you have been selected for a week's vacation to Orlando, Fla., right next to Disney.

MALONE: What is going on?

HELM: Ugh, I've talked to that robot before. And we wanted to know how common this is.

MALONE: So we put out a call to you, PLANET MONEY listeners. And we asked, hey, are you getting these phone calls?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, actually (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Usually comes about once a week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Probably three or four a day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I had four different phone calls in that eight-minute span on Tuesday morning.

HELM: We got around a thousand responses from everywhere from St. Louis to Southern California to Canada.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And I just got one about 10 minutes before you called, as a matter of fact. (Imitating voice recording) Hi, this is Elizabeth from resorts blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I feel like I'm being stalked or something. Like, is there a serial killer loose?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And 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.

MALONE: The calls are coming from inside the house.

HELM: (Imitating scream).

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY RAY MORON AND MARC FERRARI'S "GET IT GET IT")

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

HELM: And I'm Sally Helm. Today on the show, why are we suddenly inundated with these spam calls from our own phone numbers/

MALONE: And from our neighbors' phone numbers?

HELM: We learn how the scam works, what happens if you pick up the phone and what can be done to stop it.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY RAY MORON AND MARC FERRARI'S "GET IT GET IT")

HELM: We have learned that this phenomenon...

MALONE: This thing where you get a phone call and it's from a number that looks almost exactly like your number...

HELM: ...This is called neighbor spoofing.

MALONE: Neighbor because same number, same neighborhood.

HELM: Right. And spoofing - that is when someone making a call disguises their number with a different number.

MALONE: What we're going to do today is dig into neighbor spoofing by looking at three main questions.

HELM: That's right. OK. Question 1 - why is this happening so much right now?

MALONE: Question 2 - what happens when you decide to answer one of these calls?

HELM: Spoiler - this part is why we put (laughter) a language warning at the top of the show. It gets a little crazy. And Question 3 is, can these calls be stopped?

MALONE: OK. Question 1 - why is this such a big thing all of a sudden?

HELM: To help us answer this, we called up Jonathan Nelson. He's with a tech company called Hiya. And one of the things Hiya does is help block robocall scams.

JONATHAN NELSON: The confusion that a lot of folks have when receiving a phone call is you would assume that the phone number that's shown to you is the exact number that's actually making the call.

MALONE: Yes.

HELM: Yeah.

MALONE: Yes, we don't understand how that's not the case.

HELM: Jonathan says there didn't used to be a spoofing problem. If you got a call, you knew who it was from. Whether the person was calling from a landline or a cellphone, the number you saw on your caller ID was the number they were calling from.

MALONE: But now, you can place a call using something called Voice over IP.

HELM: IP as an Internet protocol.

MALONE: Basically, you can use a computer to make a call. It's over the Internet, but it shows up on somebody else's phone as if it is just a regular old phone call.

HELM: And Voice over IP has made it possible to make it look like you're calling from a different number.

MALONE: And that is what we call call spoofing. And there are totally legitimate reasons to spoof a number. So for example, maybe you are Ted's Lawn Service, and you have a few phone lines. But really, you want all of your outgoing calls to have the same number so you look like this unified company.

HELM: Right - keeps things simple. But, of course, scammers have discovered that they can also use this. If they spoof numbers, they can make it so that people are more likely to pick up their calls.

MALONE: So there was one scam, for example, where they would make it look like the IRS was calling you. There was another one where they would make it look like you were trying to call yourself.

HELM: I actually got one of those a couple weeks ago. I had a missed call from myself.

MALONE: Why would anyone answer a call from yourself?

NELSON: (Laughter) I don't think that one works very well. I'm surprised they actually are still trying it.

MALONE: And eventually, someone, somewhere had an evil spoofing eureka moment. And they said, OK, so maybe not the exact same number that we're calling. But what if we just use the same first six digits and then randomly select four more digits? It will look like the neighbor is calling.

HELM: In February of 2017, Jonathan says, this started taking off.

NELSON: Someone had to try this first. There had to have been the one scammer who had this idea. And I just picture them bragging online to their...

MALONE: (Laughter).

NELSON: ...To their hacker friends - about, hey, check this out. Like, this is amazing. And then everyone started doing it.

MALONE: And so the answer to our first question - why is this happening all of a sudden?

HELM: It's because the Internet makes it possible and actually easier every day.

MALONE: And also, the scammers have discovered that it works. If they make it look like our neighbors are calling us, we're more likely to pick up the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MALONE: Oh, here we go. Here we go.

HELM: (Unintelligible).

MALONE: All right, you do it.

So just out of curiosity, we wanted to see how easy it is to neighbor spoof somebody.

HELM: It is super easy.

MALONE: There are all kinds of software online. You just type in the number you want to call, type in the number you want it to look like you're calling from...

HELM: And boom. We tried it out on Noel King.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MALONE: Pretend like you're a robot.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MALONE: I'm so nervous.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: This is Noel.

HELM: Noel, you have won a free vacation.

KING: I have not won a free vacation.

MALONE: No, you...

HELM: Noel...

MALONE: ...Have won a free vacation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL END TONE)

MALONE: Aw, she hung up on us.

HELM: (Laughter) But we got her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC FERRARI, NATE DONMOYER AND ROSHMOND DORAN PATTEN'S "WILDOFF")

HELM: Question No. 2 - what exactly is happening when we do answer our phones?

MALONE: So we had an outstanding request for our colleagues here at PLANET MONEY that if you happen to get one of these neighbor spoofing calls, could you please just go and grab a recorder and see if you can record the call and talk to them and find out what they want, where they are, like, whatever you can figure out.

HELM: And it did not take long...

MALONE: No.

HELM: ...Until our newest reporter, Julia DeWitt, got one of these phone calls. And we have Julia in the studio with us now. Hello, Julia.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Hi, guys.

HELM: And we're actually just going to hand it off to Julia now to tell us about this phone call and what she figured out.

DEWITT: So this call came from a spoof number. It looked like my number from Boston, and it started with a robot.

PRERECORDED VOICE #2: Press 1 to see if you qualify to have your debt eliminated. Press 2 to be taken off the list.

DEWITT: So I press 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

DEWITT: And I get connected to a human.

JOHN TORRES: Account services - how are you doing today?

DEWITT: Hi. Good, thanks.

OK. So let's just pause here for a second. I just started talking to this guy, and I may have already made a bunch of mistakes. I know this because, later on, I asked an expert about what was going on here.

WILL MAXON: And what we tell consumers is that the best thing to do is simply to hang up on them.

DEWITT: This is Will Maxon. He works at the Federal Trade Commission. And he says when I picked up that call, when I pressed 1 for more information, I was saying to the people calling me, I'm a human. I pick up, which means maybe I will also buy things from you. That is valuable information. The people calling me may keep a list of all the suckers, like me, who pick up the phone. They might even sell that list to other robocallers. But of course, selling my name to other robocallers is not this guy's main hustle.

TORRES: That's great. And I believe you are responding to get yourself a debt reduction on your credit card. Right?

DEWITT: Yes. And also - I'm sorry - what was your name?

TORRES: John Torres (ph).

DEWITT: John?

TORRES: Torres.

DEWITT: John Torres.

TORRES: Yes.

DEWITT: OK, John. So I'm actually - I'm - do you mind if I record this call?

TORRES: No.

DEWITT: OK. So yeah, tell me about how I reduce my debt.

TORRES: We (unintelligible) reducing down your interest rate on your credit card so we can help you out with your balances. So which credit card do you consider yourself that you're paying a high interest rate on?

DEWITT: I guess I hadn't really thought thought much about it. Who am I getting this from?

TORRES: You are talking to Visa and Mastercard services. We are working with Chase, Capital One, Citi, Sears, Discover and American Express.

DEWITT: So OK. What's going on here? Will Maxson, the guy at the FTC, says, first of all, it's almost always illegal for a business to robocall you to try and sell you something. You may have heard of the Do Not Call Registry. The people making these calls - they don't care. They're already breaking the law by robocalling you in the first place. As for the endgame of these calls, Maxson says, sometimes, these callers - they are actually trying to sell you a real thing. Sometimes, they're trying to steal your credit card info.

OK. And where are you calling from.

TORRES: I'm calling you from Atlanta, Ga., ma'am.

DEWITT: How's the weather in Atlanta?

TORRES: The weather is sometimes - on the night, it's, like, too cold. And the morning is normal.

DEWITT: Sometimes, it's too cold at night. August in Atlanta.

TORRES: Yeah, at night. Yeah.

DEWITT: And then at some point, John Torres from Atlanta decides he has had enough of my questions. Quick warning here - this gets graphic.

TORRES: Which card do you want to lower interest rates on?

DEWITT: I guess - I mean, I don't know. I don't know which one.

TORRES: Which one do you have right now in your physical possession?

DEWITT: I have a MasterCard.

TORRES: What is the expiration date on it?

DEWITT: It's January 2019.

TORRES: Which bank do you have that card with?

DEWITT: Excuse me?

TORRES: Which bank do you have that card with?

DEWITT: I guess - yeah, I mean, I guess I just want to know a little bit more about what this is for just before I give you my credit card number.

TORRES: Which card do you have that - through which bank do you have that card with?

DEWITT: No, I just just - I'm not - I don't want to give you more information until I understand a little bit more.

TORRES: All right. I want you to just take this MasterCard and shove it up into your candy ass and jump like a fucking frog because we do not work on lesbian cards.

DEWITT: Excuse me. You don't work on what?

TORRES: Lesbian cards.

DEWITT: Lesbian cards?

TORRES: Yes.

DEWITT: I'm sorry. I'm just trying to get more information about it. I don't mean to make you angry.

TORRES: No problem. We can get you, ma'am. We can get you. So do you have your lesbian card with you?

DEWITT: I just - I don't know what this has to do with lesbians.

TORRES: Because you're a lesbian. So your card is also lesbian.

DEWITT: Well, I don't take particular offense to that. But that's also not a credit card. I'm sorry. You said you work for - Card Member Services is the name of your company?

TORRES: I gave you the wrong information about myself, about the company.

DEWITT: So you're not going to tell me what the actual company is. You lied to me about what the company was.

TORRES: Because you're playing with your daddy. Fuck yourself.

DEWITT: Has a conversation ever gone this badly? It doesn't - I mean, it seems like we've lost the thread here with talking about interest rates. And he hung up.

Wow, that went a way that I (laughter) could not have anticipated.

HELM: So, Julia, the question we started this section with - what happens when you answer these calls? Bad things happen.

DEWITT: Very bad things happen.

HELM: Never pick up the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC FERRARI, NATE DONMOYER AND ROSHMOND DORAN PATTEN'S "WILDOFF")

HELM: Coming up, will these calls ever stop?

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC FERRARI, NATE DONMOYER AND ROSHMOND DORAN PATTEN'S "WILDOFF")

HELM: All right, Kenny. Our final question here is, will these robo spoof-neighbor scam calls...

(LAUGHTER)

HELM: Are they ever going to end?

MALONE: Yeah. Like, what is being done on a national level to potentially end this? Which is why we have looped in Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey.

MALONE: Ailsa, you're in D.C. You're at the heart of regulation.

CHANG: (Laughter) That sounds sexy.

MALONE: No, it does not.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HELM: OK. So the Federal Communications Commission - the FCC - they oversee telecommunications.

MALONE: You know, phone calls.

HELM: And, Ailsa, you got a chance to talk to the chairman, Ajit Pai, about call spoofing and neighbor spoofing.

CHANG: Yeah. Because robocalls, telemarketing calls, spoofed calls - that whole sort of monstrous universe of unwanted calls - this is his No. 1 consumer protection issue this year.

Chairman, have you been spoofed?

AJIT PAI: Oh, absolutely. So every now and then, even on my work Blackberry, I'll see a call that seems to be coming...

CHANG: On your FCC cell phone?

PAI: Oh yeah. They'll seem to be coming from, you know, 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. Sometimes, they answer just for the heck of it. And it's - lo and behold, I've won a vacation from Marriott.

MALONE: And I'm assuming he told you that he's got it all under control. It's going to be completely fixed in the next six weeks.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MALONE: Tell me that that's true - that the calls are ending.

CHANG: It's not so true. I mean, they're trying a few different things. The easiest thing that they're trying so far, he said, is they're letting phone carriers block certain calls that are known to be spoofed calls or robocalls.

PAI: Before the action that we took earlier this spring, under the FCC's rules, carriers were obligated to patch through any calls that they got. It was...

CHANG: Oh.

PAI: So that's one of the things we did - was to allow them to take action against those spoof numbers.

CHANG: But Ajit Pai was telling me that what they really have in mind is something far more technologically complicated but far better as a solution.

PAI: ...Which is the ultimate solution, I think, to this problem, which is to find a call authentication standard.

CHANG: Basically, we would be able to encode a unique signature in every phone number that's really being used.

PAI: And so when a call's 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's impersonating the owner of that number.

CHANG: Oh. How many years would it take to get an authentication system like that in place?

PAI: Oh, boy. That's one of the things that we're working on. Obviously, we would like to have it done by yesterday. But this is exceptionally complex.

CHANG: So what's, like, a timeframe? Are we talking a year from now, a decade from now? I have no idea.

PAI: It's hard to forecast because we can't predict exactly how the engineering is going to shake out.

MALONE: It sounds like I am still going to be getting calls from my fake neighbors for, like, the next - I don't know - months, years.

CHANG: Yeah, basically. There's no stopping for a while.

HELM: (Laughter).

CHANG: Sorry.

MALONE: All right.

HELM: Thanks, Ailsa.

MALONE: Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: No problem, guys.

MALONE: Bye.

HELM: Bye.

CHANG: Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY RAY MORON AND MARC FERRARI'S "GET IT GET IT")

MALONE: If you've got a scam - maybe it's yours, maybe somebody else's - email us planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. We're going to investigate it. We're going to get to the bottom of it.

HELM: Also, PLANET MONEY is hiring. So if you have some experience in journalism or in finance or if you've ever made anyone laugh when talking about economics, we want to hear from you. Go to npr.org/careers.

MALONE: Today's episode was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

HELM: Special thanks this week to Kevin Rupi (ph), who helped us understand phones. And, also, if you are interested in this whole phone scam world, you should really go check out the podcast Reply All. They just had two amazing episodes that are about phone scams. It's Reply All episodes 102 and 103, Long Distance. I highly recommend it. Go check it out.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

HELM: And I'm Sally helm. Thanks for listening.

MALONE: One last thing - our friend Gregory Warner has just launched a brand-new podcast. It's called Rough Translation. It's amazing. It's available now. And here's a little taste of it.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Gregory Warner here to tell you about NPR's new international podcast. It's called Rough Translation. Each week, we're going to take you to a different country to hear a story that reflects back on something that we are talking about here in the United States. Maybe get a perspective shift. Travel with us. Rough Translation is on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.