Scams Are Killing the Phone Call
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Scams Are Killing the Phone Call

As North American governments struggle to fight it, the robocall epidemic could already be changing how we use our phones. If you've stopped picking up, you're not alone.
December 6, 2019, 1:47pm

The other week, I got a text from Amazon telling me a delivery person was at my door with a package, and immediately knew it was a scam. Getting upwards of four spam calls a day, I was surprised the scammers had now pivoted to text—honestly clever on their part. I showed the text to my friend and we really couldn’t believe the ingenuity, it was so realistic.

Only, later that day, I found out from my friends that the "scam" text was actually a real notification for a package being delivered.

They had sent me a gift as a surprise to cheer me up after a difficult month. They laughed at me for being so paranoid about spam calls, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how last year, I would have never been so immediately suspicious. Was this what it meant to have a phone number in 2019? That you cannot trust a single call or text from someone who wasn’t already a saved contact?

The sheer amount of spam calls people are getting in North America has become a problem telecom companies can’t seem to solve. In the past, opting out of telemarketing calls was as simple as saying, “Add me to the do not call list”—something I had to do frequently as a person who worked at call centres for years.

While both Canada and the United States offer advice on how to spot spam phone calls

and report them, it’s almost impossible to stop getting them. According to a 2018 report by global communications platform First Orion, spam phone calls accounted for 29.2 percent of all mobile phone calls in the U.S. in 2018, up from just 3.7 percent in 2017, and the trend is continuing. Because the calls are often spoofed (meaning the information on your caller ID is changed), the same group can call you multiple times. Another issue is that plenty of these calls are placed using VoIP (voice over IP), so it’s difficult for anti-fraud groups and telecom regulatory boards to know exactly where they’re coming from. Essentially, the only way to protect yourself is to just pick up your phone and hope for the best, or to just stop picking up your phone at all.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who’s phone habits have changed since getting a constant barrage of spam calls became the new normal. After tweeting about it, I got almost a hundred people all telling me more or less the same thing: getting so many spam calls has effectively changed the way they use the telephone function on their phone.

Since moving to Vancouver year ago from Dublin, Ellen told me she never picks up her phone anymore, ever. “I honestly don't even feel the reflex to pick up the phone anymore,” she told me over Twitter DM. Saying the calls began almost as soon as she got her Canadian SIM card, she was initially surprised but now, “They are so common they are like wallpaper almost to me. I don't even think of it as unusual at this point.”

And while these calls are annoying, they’ve also moved past that into making people anxious. For those with family in different cities or children in school, each call can be potentially important.

“I’ve probably lost out on some business this way but I have to do it to protect my time and sanity"

Kit, a writer based in New York City and originally from North Carolina constantly gets phone calls from her family’s North Carolina area code. “It freaks me out because my first thought is that someone in my family is sick, or injured, or some emergency has happened,” she said.

Kit said she has to text her mom every time to see if something is up, and the calls are frustrating due to the stress.

Of course, the anxiety of missing important calls isn’t a new feeling, especially considering how millennials are accused of killing the phone call. But those I spoke with have missed important calls because of the volume of spam calls they’re getting. Megan, a construction worker based in Toronto, keeps her phone on night mode all the time.

“A friend called me and she was in the hospital I feel bad about that one,” Julie, an activist from Ottawa told me. “I missed a call from a specialist who had a last-minute cancellation appointment. So now I’m stuck waiting months again.”

Steve, a small business owner from Aurora, Colorado reports getting at least six spam calls a day. “I don’t answer unrecognizable numbers anymore. If it’s important they can leave a voicemail,” he told me. “I’ve probably lost out on some business this way but I have to do it to protect my time and sanity.”

While North American governments in Canada and the United States have procedures for reporting spam calls and reporting fraud attempts, their approach and reporting system feels almost as antiquated as landlines. No regulatory board or law enforcement can seem to keep up with the scams as they change frequently, and oftentimes happen outside Canadian or American borders. Most recently, the US Congress passed a bill that will fine robocallers up to $20,000 for each time they make calls using unauthenticated numbers, but whether it makes a dent remains to be seen.

Speaking to so many people, it struck me how resigned everyone was to this fact: that this is seemingly just the way things are now, with no hope of it getting better, only worse. And while many believe millennials killed talking on the phone because we fear real connection, maybe it’s because we are too scared of getting scammed.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.