It happens to all of us. You are elbow deep in your day’s work (or fun, if you are fortunate!) and your phone buzzes. “Unknown Number” is calling you, and it looks familiar because it’s the same area code and possibly even same prefix as your number. Is that your friend’s new number? Nope, it’s a robocall offering you an extended car warranty or something else completely useless. Your phone helpfully offers to block future calls from this number and flag it as spam, which you dutifully do, hoping to forestall future calls from that number, and possibly provide some cover for everyone else. But should you be marking it as spam?
Why on earth would I NOT mark it as spam?
Robocallers typically use spoofed phone numbers, meaning the number that shows up on your phone when the call comes in is not the actual number being used to make the call. You may have seen a similar tactic used by hackers when sending out phishing or scam emails, most notably the one that comes from your own email address to yourself, purportedly from a hacker has compromising information on you that they will keep private if you pay them hush money. The proof that they have hacked you is this email from your very own email address. The fact of the matter is that spoofing email addresses and phone numbers is trivial to do, and on the email side of things, it’s also trivial to detect, but not so much on the mobile phone side of things if the carriers’ current efforts are any indication. While I’m fairly certain that the carriers could be doing more on the technical side to verify and disqualify calls using spoofed numbers, they’ve done between nothing and minimal effort about it at all, to the point where congress is having to force them to do something, even if it’s barely scratching the surface of the main problem.
The one thing that most carriers have done is implement a database that collects your spam reports and then uses that to provide some context on calls coming in, ala “Scam Likely” labels, etc. on unknown numbers. Essentially, it’s a user-powered blacklist, but that’s a problem because we are reporting numbers as spam that aren’t actually tied to the spammer. In fact, the number might actually be a legitimate business that has now been unfairly tarred and feathered for an act they didn’t actually commit.
This actually happened to a client last week, and the impact was almost immediate. On top of getting dozens of irate and profane return calls from people who thought they were calling the spammer, their main business number was now showing as “Potential Spam” when they were trying to call their own clients. The robocaller apparently spoofed enough calls from their number to get it flagged in multiple carrier’s “Spam list”, which requires the business to appeal the unfair labeling at each carrier. On top of being highly disruptive, this is potentially damaging to them and there is literally nothing they can do to prevent some robocaller from doing it again and starting the process all over again. I’ve had this happen to clients previously, but the backlash was never as immediate and damaging as this latest unfortunate event. Once again, we have created another dual-edged tool that bites back harder than it protects. Meanwhile, carriers stand around wringing their hands and crying crocodile tears on their big piles of money. The next time you receive a spam call, think twice about marking it as spam. Unless you’ve received repeated calls from the same number it’s likely not going to have any impact on the spammer because it’s a spoofed number, and it might actually sideswipe a local business or family inadvertently. Instead, redirect that annoyance at sending a sternly-worded email or voicemail to your local congressperson to ask them why we are still fighting robocalls after all these years.