The Art Of The Robocall: When Your Phone Rings And Nobody Answers


You’ve just come home from a busy day at work, your phone has seemed to not stop ringing all day, ringing in more and more work with each call. You’ve finally left the office, maybe gone to the gym or yoga, and now finally sit ready to dive into that book you’ve been waiting for or into that bowl of freshly made pad thai. But, as you sit down, you hear your phone ringing one last time. Who could this possibly be now? You pick it up, and, sure enough, it’s an unknown number with the same area code as hours. Suspicious, you pick it up, only to hear the initial tones of some prerecorded telemarketer before taking the device in your hand and chucking it out of reach. 

Sound familiar? It should, because, in America, robo-callers, the entities responsible for blowing up your phone with unwarranted, unknown phone calls, made 26.3 billion calls like this in 2018 alone. Some, as reported by The Washington Post, would even project that as many as half of all phone calls in America in 2019 could be exactly this kind of spam. As troubling and annoying as these numbers may sound, and despite the fact that you, like me, might have simply chosen not to answer your phone, there must have been some reason for reaching out like that, some underlying cause. 

The truth is, these calls are always being made because the automated callers make money even when the user does not pick up his cell phone. Essentially, though they invade American phone lines with voice-dictated scams, they sustain its calling costs simply by doing just that — calling.

Because of Caller ID, when you receive a call, your service provider essentially runs through the caller’s provider’s database of phone numbers and names to give you the best approximation of who is calling. When your service provider does that, in order to tell you who’s on the other end of the line, it pays a micro transaction (about $0.003 per call) to said database for the information. 

What Robo-callers do to exploit this system is remarkably simple. They purchase stocks of numbers out of a database online and use them to make calls to people like you. Then, whether you pick up or not, just because of Caller ID, your service provider will pay that small fee to the database, which, in this case, is owned by whoever sold the robo-caller his phone numbers. This so-called “number dealer” then receives payment for a largely inexistent service, and goes on to share part of the profit with those he “employs” as robo-callers. This infographic created by the Wall Street Journal does a wonderful job explaining the system, as does the video by Techquickie below:

Essentially then, even if you don’t fall for their credit-card hungry scams, even if you don’t pick up, robo-callers are sustaining their own practice, wiggling themselves into an evidently flawed system, which many are trying to set straight. One such company is Hiya, the most popular call-blocking app. In the first quarter of 2018, they tracked as many as 5 billion “robocalls”, and have placed the fight against this communicative malpractice amongst their top priorities. 

What they’ve discovered is, in the first place, that Americans are answering their phones a whole lot less. With the advent of such robo-calls, it is estimated that around 50% of all US phone calls are now left unanswered, these malicious little robots identified as the primary suspect of the crime. When these spam calls are answered, they’ve found, it is often because of additional techniques they employ to get you to swipe right on that first screen. One of them, for example, known as “neighbor spoofing”, is when robo-callers target specific phone numbers with equally specific packs that share the same area code. When seeing an area code like one’s own, the data shows, we are obviously much more likely to pick up.

The tricky bit of the discussion, here, comes in when discussing what to do next. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do, presently, other than employing the services of companies like Hiya, who offer screening services that are better than both your phone’s and your provider’s, as shown in the video below. However, there is also relatively little we can do on the legislative side of things. Last year alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received as many as 500,000 complains a month about such robocalls. However, little to no action has been taken by any legislative entity. The reason, stated simply, is that there is very legal ground on which to stand. It is not strictly illegal to “be” a robo-caller, and many companies and call centers employ robo-callers for promotional and managerial services. Monitoring these activities individually is impossible while discerning their legitimacy poses an equally difficult challenge. 

There has, however, been talk of service providers adopting a SHAKEN / STIR protocol, essentially a validating system that would allow phone calls passing through each network an extra layer of authentication. Though T-Mobile seems to be at the forefront of its development, and “plans to activate it soon”, other companies like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and Metro, must all join forces in order to ameliorate the flawed system where this is allowed to happen. 

We certainly hope that happens soon, as the prospect of half of all calls in the world being purposefully made and ignored by robots on both ends sounds to me as frightening as it does annoying and unnerving.