You’re in the shower. The phone rings. Your husband is out of town and you’ve been waiting for his call. You push through the curtain, your hair full of shampoo, you grab the phone and blurt out, “Hello?”
“Hello,” a voice answers, “this is Cindy with card services …”
You’re in the car. You’re on the way to the hospital. Your phone rings. You think it might be the doctor. You feel around, find the phone, hold it to your ear while keeping your eyes on the road. “Hello?” you say anxiously.
“Hi, this is Philip with an important message about your credit …”
You’re in a meeting. You’re about to say something important. Your phone rings. The number is similar to yours, and you figure it’s someone from your neighborhood. You excuse yourself. “Hello?” you say.
“A judgment has been ruled against you,” a voice bleats, “you have three days in which to reply or face penalties, possibly imprisonment …”
Welcome to 2019, where the phone is a weapon of deception. A new study by the FCC projects that nearly half of all cell calls received this year will be spam. Junk. Uninvited voices designed to lure money or information.
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Half of our calls? Half?
You’re on a ski slope. You lose sight of your partner. You wonder if she’s OK. Your phone rings. Maybe it’s her. Maybe she’s down. You yank off you gloves, toss aside your hand warmers, dig into your pocket and rush before it stops ringing. “Hello?” you say. “Are you OK?”
“This is Miriam with the Association of Retired Servicemen …”
The thing that calls you
How did we get to this point? Once, a ringing phone was a sign that someone you knew wanted to talk to you, someone you’d be happy to hear from. How else would they have your number?
That was a long time ago, when phones plugged into walls and operators connected calls. Today, nearly half the time, it’s not even someone calling you. It’s some thing. A high-powered computer that can spit out thousands of calls in a flash, spraying robovoices across the landscape like a national rainstorm.
Telemarketers, the financial industry, travel companies, political campaigns, all combine to pummel us with unwanted calls — and lobby the government to protect their ability to do it — and that doesn’t even mention all the scams, ruses, frauds and downright illegal schemes that stay one step ahead of the smaller and overworked regulation agencies.
This field has grown so sophisticated, fraudsters can now create a number that looks like your number, and employ voice technology that mimics business people you might know.
According to a CNN article last fall, “a scammer could call you from what looks to be a familiar number and talk to you using a voice that sounds exactly like your bank teller’s, saying they’ve found suspicious activity on your account. You’re then tricked into ‘confirming’ your address, mother’s maiden name, card number and PIN number.”
Great. Another thing to worry about besides stolen passwords, credit card fraud, hacked-into bank accounts and identity theft.
Tell me again how computer technology is the most wonderful development of the last half-century?
This madness is getting worse
What’s really troubling is how little the government is doing to stop this. Remember when they invented the Do Not Call Registry? And everyone thought that would halt this mess?
Guess again. The Do Not Call Registry is largely a joke today, ineffective against robocall makers and overseas entities that treat privacy like an ant under a shoe. By the time some of the scammers are discovered, they’ve moved on. By the time certain blocking technologies are developed, infiltrators have invented newer technologies to outsmart them.
The FCC, in a recent report, says progress is being made, even as another report showed that robocalls in 2018 were up 57 percent from the year before. A 57 percent increase doesn’t sound like progress.
There is a technology called SHAKEN/STIR that the FCC is demanding phone companies adopt, which ensures the number you are seeing on your screen is real and not “spoofed” to look like a familiar number. But by the time this is implemented by all carriers, a new form of fraud might be in play.
All of which has led people to ignore phone calls altogether, refusing to answer, checking the display and frowning in disgust.
Not that this is a great solution …
You’re on your way home. It’s Friday night. Your phone rings. You check the number. It looks vaguely familiar, but not completely, and you press “ignore” and congratulate yourself.
The next day, your best friend calls. “Hey, you won’t believe this. Someone gave us four tickets to the Beyonce concert last night. We tried calling you on Bill’s phone, but you didn’t answer. It was so great! Sorry you missed it.”
Somewhere Alexander Graham Bell is shaking his head and saying, “What happened?”
And then, his heavenly phone rings and a voice says, “This is the IRS, an arrest warrant has been issued in your name …”
Mitch Albom is a columnist at the Detroit Free Press, where this column first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @mitchalbom.