Scammers are always looking for ways to make their criminal enterprises more efficient, and one way they do that is with robocalls.
Instead of a solitary scammer dialing up potential victims, getting into his pitch, only to have the target hang up, technology can make thousands of calls and play a recording when someone answers. Most people are going to hang up, but the few who respond are connected to a person who then tries to reel them in. It makes the scam a lot more efficient and dangerous.
“A robocall, as a technology, is used to screen out the first set of victims,” Jan Volzke, a vice president at Hiya, told ConsumerAffairs.
Hiya is a free call-blocking app, available for the iPhone and Android platforms. It was recently spun off as an independent company by Whitepages.
If you have a phone, you've probably gotten a robocall. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says if you get a robocall from someone trying to sell you something, and you haven't agreed in writing to allow them to call, then the call is illegal.
In the case of scammers who are operating offshore, they don't really care that it's illegal. They have raked in millions of dollars with schemes like the business loan pitch. The recorded greeting says something like “congratulations, your business has been approved for a $250,000 loan.”
If you stay on the phone long enough to talk to a live person, that person will try to get information from you that can be used to steal your identity.
“There is another very similar scam in which you are notified of winning something, like a cruise,” Volzke said. “Once you are connected to a live operator, you are told that in order to get the free cruise tickets, you must pay a port fee of about $50 to $500. So this scam doesn't just collect information, but also a payment for a ticket you will never receive.”
Then there is the IRS roboscam, which is growing by leaps and bounds. The recorded pitch might try to scare you, threatening you with prosecution over unpaid taxes. Or it might take a different tact, telling you that you have a bigger refund coming. The objective is the same, to trick the victim into talking to a live person and revealing bank account or other sensitive information.
Even though they are illegal, robocalls are increasing at a rapid rate, primarily because they make money.
“When we have a combination of automation tools at very low cost and a very attractive target, then we have what we call a toxic cocktail in place, that lures in a lot of criminals,” Volzke said.
Volzke describes the Hiya app sort of like anti-virus for phones. He says the company has done a lot of analysis of what phone numbers do and how they behave in order to conclude whether a particular phone number is engaged in a positive or negative, or at least unwanted, behavior.
For example, if a phone number is identified as one that makes 5,000 phone calls in a second to 5,000 different phone numbers, this is probably not a good sign and it's a number that should be blocked.
“The immediate benefit you receive is that when you get a phone call, we will provide you with the intelligence we have about the phone call at the instant you receive it,” Volzke said.