It’s a gripe that’s become as common in Virginia as summer humidity or I-95 traffic: Who among us in not besieged by robocalls?
The number of statewide robocalls have spiked from an estimated 593 million calls in 2016 to nearly 1.2 billion last year, according to the anti-robocall app YouMail, which uses calls reported by users to model broader estimates. Virginia was ranked 7th in the country last year for per capita robocall complaints, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
And while the calls often look like they come from Richmond, experts say they’re more likely to originate thousands of miles away in Moscow or Mumbai. Aided by cheap internet phone services, scammers can mask their identity with encryption to make thousands of calls for a fraction of a penny apiece, according to Raymond Tu, an assistant professor of machine learning at the University of Maryland.
“They could make money simply by casting a wide net, and simply catching a fish or two,” Tu says.
A bill sponsored by Del. Emily Brewer (R-Suffolk) now on the governor’s desk targets a practice. The bill makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor for someone to use false caller identification with “the intent to defraud, intimidate, or harass” people on the other line.
The legislation passed with broad support in the legislature, where backers cast it as a straightforward remedy to the scourge of robocalls.
“Only people who make harassing telephone calls could possibly oppose this bill,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), during hearings on the bill in February.
But Tu says that while the intentions behind the law may be noble, prosecutors are unlikely to be able to track down the culprits since they hide behind the numbers of ordinary citizens. And Sam Cook, a Virginia-based writer for the technology site Comparitech, points out similar federal legislation is already on the books.
“As we can see, phone spam has only increased in the last several years despite it already being a federal crime,” Cook says.
Cook recommends apps like YouMail, which help screen out those calls. Tu says those apps are at best a short-term solution, since they rely on curated lists of spam numbers that require regular maintenance, and can come with subscription. He says telecom providers should set up a standardized procedure to verify caller ID; the current system relies on self-reported information.
The problem is unlikely to go away soon, according to Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail. His team estimates that nationwide robocalls spiked over 50 percent last year, compared to around 5 to 10 percent the year before.
“It’s a bit of a death spiral – lots of calls make it so people don’t answer, and then people not answering leads to lots more calls,” Quilici says.