Robocalls didn’t stop in 2016, either

Five years ago, I wrote this article. It was a throwback to an even earlier article back in 2013. The original article documented the FCC’s first attempt to rein in robocalls. It was, to say the least, a failure. Since then we’ve seen the FCC and carriers try over and over again to control the problem. It’s gotten better in some ways, but in others it’s gotten worse.

STIR/SHAKEN helped…

STIR/SHAKEN, or SHAKEN/STIR depending on who you ask, is the backbone of a law that is supposed to help this sort of thing. With this law, it becomes harder to “spoof” phone numbers. It’s hard to believe, but for most of the last few decades it’s been hilariously easy to falsify your Caller ID. This led to a common practice where robocallers would choose a number in your local area, thinking you’d be more likely to pick it up.

Most carriers, both landline and cellular, have adopted this, and if nothing else it’s led to more calls being labeled “Potential Spam” or “Spam Risk.” Most of us just ignore those. But scammers are smart, and they’ve evolved.

The new threat: cyborgs

…or whatever they end up being called. There’s a new sort of robocall and it’s starting to take over. In this new scheme, which I’m calling “cyborg calling” until someone comes up with something more clever, banks of people operate semi-automated calling machines. You’ve gotten these before… it seems like you’re talking to a person but the responses are delayed and seem a bit canned. If you deviate from their script, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not actually talking to a person.

In a setup like this, one person could be calling multiple people, and letting a computer do most of the work. Pre-recorded statements play in defined order, and the person only gets involved when there’s some deviation. The call centers are regional, and there are people in there, so they’re not technically “robocalls.” So, some people somewhere are employed (I pity them for being unable to get a different job) and that means they are technically legal.

Sometimes these calls pretend to be surveys. When you boil them down they try make you feel a certain way about an issue. Sometimes these calls try to get you to donate to someone. Sometimes they’re just the same old solar and home improvement scams that have been run for years. They just have a new shine thanks to this different technology

Old-school robocalls are still there

I don’t know how, but there are definitely people out there who are able to get past STIR/SHAKEN. Not as many, and there’s clearly a limit, but I still get 4-5 calls a day from spammers who present what appear to be very valid caller ID. It’s still enough that I, like you, have stopped answering calls from people I don’t know.

And you know, it’s really kind of sad. The other day I watched a History Channel documentary on the development of the phone (slow day on DIRECTV). It got me to thinking about what an amazing and transformative thing the telephone is. I mean, voice communication with anyone, anywhere on the planet. And yet today we avoid it. Voice calls have become so toxic, such a waste of time, that we choose text or instant messaging instead. That’s the real shame of it.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.