Never before have the numbers "612" on your cellphone screen seemed so much like a baited trap. You pick up. You say “hello,” and the first thing you hear is a disappointing silence – maybe some kind of a muffled whir in the distance.
You know before you hear the words “Congratulations! You’ve won a weeklong cruise to the Bahamas!” that you’ve been had. It’s that same chipper voice that called yesterday, and twice the day before that. You know there isn’t a cruise, and you know she isn’t even truly chipper, or receptive to angry words or demands she never call again, because she’s a robot. Lately, she and her robot pals have been calling you nonstop.
It’s not just your imagination: You have been receiving more spam calls offering you free cruises and loan consolidation. According to data from YouMail, a California company that offers a robocall-blocking app for cellphones, you’re getting twice as many as you used to. The number of robocalls to Minnesotans doubled in 2018, averaging about eight calls a month from perky, loan-slinging automatons. (Or that weirdly aggressive one that begins, “Hello, this is Lisa, do not hang up.”)
If you get a robocall you didn’t sign up for, it’s almost always illegal, even if it’s not explicitly a scam. That’s in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. If you didn’t know this, it’s probably because those laws are not the most stridently enforced ones on the books.
Federal and state regulators have been trying to rein in these prolific, minimal-effort phone spammers for years, and if the numbers are anything to go by, they officially do not got this. The reason, according to them: The spammers have just gotten too dang good at it.
Scammers have figured out how to make calls appear to come from your area code, or even from a friend or a family member. Just last year, our state got pegged with 45 million of them, most of them with numbers beginning in “612.”
Some of these robocall operations, according to the Star Tribune, are responsible for nearly a billion calls a year. For some perspective, if you made one call a minute starting right now and never took a break, it would take you until the year 3921 to reach a billion.
Perhaps the worst news is analysts predict that nearly half of all cell phone calls (roughly 45 percent) will come from scammers as we head deeper into 2019.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s spokesperson, Benjamin Wogsland, calls the enforcement predicament “incredibly frustrating." Most of these calls, he says, are coming from “criminal enterprises” based outside of Minnesota (and sometimes outside the country), whose identity and location-masking tech has far outpaced the law’s attempts to catch them.
"It renders caller ID relatively useless," he says. "The solution is probably going to be technological."
But Peter Barry, a Minneapolis consumer rights attorney who makes a living suing robocallers, thinks there’s a lot more the feds could be doing to keep scammers in line.
Back in 2015, the FCC had a pretty simple standing definition for what a robocaller was: basically anything that could autodial a cell phone. In 2018, after Ajit Pai took over as the FCC’s chairman, that definition was struck down by federal judges as too broad, based on the argument that any cell phone could become an “autodialer” if it just downloaded the right app.
Barry worries that the definition has become way too squishy to be enforceable by the courts, and that robocallers know it -- which is why, he says, we’re seeing so many spam calls now.
“We’ve spent the past 10 years fighting with the consumer finance industry about what an automatic call is,” he says. “The answer should fall in favor of the consumers -- not autodialers.”
For now, your last and best line of defense against scam calls is you. The next time somebody begins a call by telling you, “Do not hang up,” do.