The average American already receives about 325 unwanted robocalls a year, research says. And now, many of those robocalls aim to capitalize on people’s coronavirus fears.
The phone-spam-blocking app YouMail recently told The Washington Post’s Tony Romm that a million coronavirus robocalls have been going out daily for the past few weeks. Many of these robocalls are highly suspect, as scammers try to scare the people on the other end of the line into parting with personal information or money. It’s yet another way that bad actors are trying to take advantage of people during the international crisis.
Transaction Network Services told Politico that one scammer sent out half a million robocalls about how coronavirus could impact student loans. Another robocall, which went out to people in the Los Angeles area, was offering “safety and medical kits.”
Nomorobo, which sells a robocall blocking app, says it has detected calls that claim to be from the “United States Department of Health,” the “E.P.A.’s Emerging Viral Pathogen Program,” and the “medical administrator.” The company intercepted a recent robocall that said: “Thank you for calling coronavirus hotline. Because of the limited testing we are first taking Medicare members. Will the free at-home test be just for you or for you and your spouse?”
Another robocall blocking app, RoboKiller, discovered a spam text message that reads, “R you and your family prepared for Covid-19? This mask could b ur life line.” The text message contains a suspicious-looking web link, RoboKiller says.
Other robocalls offer dodgy health insurance or loans to cover coronavirus treatment costs. Still others propose housecleaning services to get rid of the virus.
The Food and Drug Administration says any company that offers a food item or dietary supplement that can protect against COVID-19, a test you can take at home, a prophylactic drug to ward off the virus, or any kind of vaccine, is likely to be a scammer. “Some people and companies are trying to profit from this pandemic by selling unproven and illegally marketed products that make false claims, such as being effective against the coronavirus,” the agency said in a statement.
Senators John Thune (a Republican from South Dakota) and Ed Markey (a Democrat from Massachusetts) have been pushing the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice to use the new powers afforded them in the TRACED Act, which became law last December, to go after robocallers. The law also requires service providers to track the origin of robocalls and allow subscribers to block them at no extra charge.
According to YouMail’s data, the number of robocalls have been increasing. In December 2019, the company says there were 4.56 million calls. By February, that number had risen to 4.82 million. But YouMail CEO Alex Qulici says that the volume of coronavirus robocalls may have slowed down slightly in March. Why? The shutdown orders in India mean that call centers that are used for both scams and legitimate robocall campaigns are now closed, Qulici points out. And all the people working from home in the U.S. have hiked up traffic on cellular networks by 40% to 50%, which may have made it harder for robocalls to reach their target phones. But the slowdown, he says, isn’t likely to last.
Tracking down robocallers isn’t easy, because technology is on their side. They often send their calls via internet telephony services, the operators of which are often based overseas.
Posing as a potential customer, I phoned the sales rep of MessageCommunications.com (the first robocalling platform that came up in a Google search) for some information. I learned that you can send out any kind of message to as many people as you want as long as you’re willing to pay for the calls. Under an $865 plan, the rep said, each robocall costs seven-tenths of a penny. The whole process of recording a robocall, targeting it, and paying for the service is automated on the web platform.
The rep said they don’t listen to the robocall messages customers create and send over the platform. I learned that coronavirus calls aren’t a problem as long as they aren’t unlawful (they don’t misrepresent the caller, the product, or the price, for example) and don’t offer any kind of coronavirus cure. He added, however, that his company has already canceled the accounts of several customers after they were found to be placing coronavirus scam calls. MessageCommunications.com’s management did not respond to a request for comment.
Robocallers typically are able to generate bogus phone numbers to display to the receiver when they call. They can also spoof the numbers of local people who might actually have a reason to call the recipient. Companies such as RoboKiller and Nomorobo maintain databases of all the robocalls placed to phones running their apps, then block those numbers for all users.
How can you stay safe from coronavirus robocalls? It’s a good idea to always ignore calls from numbers you don’t recognize. And you should never “press 1” when prompted to do so by a robocall.
Robocall volume typically increases around events such as the tax filing deadline and the period for changing health plans. During normal times—remember those?—robocalls are little more than an annoyance for most people. But for roboscammers to rally around something as serious as coronavirus is particularly galling.