My wishes for the New Year are pretty basic. Good health, the well being of family and friends, the usual stuff.
And one unusual wish. Wouldn’t it be a great New Year’s gift for all of us if Congress passed the Robocall Bill this year?
The Robocall Bill would allow telephone carriers to block calls with pre-recorded messages. As you know if you’ve gotten them (and who hasn’t?), the relentless barrage of unwanted calls is beyond annoying.
My wife and I estimate that roughly three of every four times our phone rings, it’s a call from a scam artist who thinks he or she has a perfect right to interrupt our lives. They call every day, often at the worst possible times. There’s no end to it:
“Hi, this is Nancy, your patient advocate. We have tried to reach you numerous times about braces that would alleviate your pain.”
Granted, I do have a few aches and pains now and then. But how did Nancy know about them? And braces? What kind of braces did she have in mind?
“Mostly I get headaches, Nancy. Would braces help those? Would they go around my head?”
Nancy wasn’t listening.
“… If we do not hear from you, you will lose your eligibility.”
“Fine, Nancy. I’ll tell you where you can put those braces.”
I could say that because “Nancy” was a computerized, pre-recorded Nancy. The only place she would have put them was in her database.
Calls from “specialists” are big these days.
“Hello, this is Maya, and I’m a vacation specialist.”
“Hello, this is Brooklyn, and I’m a travel specialist. Do you need help with your upcoming trip?”
I was tempted to tell Brooklyn she could drive me to the airport for an early flight, but, like Nancy and Maya, she was just a recording.
“Hello, my name is Hanna, and I’m a hearing specialist calling on a recorded line. Now … can you hear me okay?”
Hanna had a friendly, engaging voice, the sort of voice that makes you want to have a conversation with her. And she was a hearing specialist, so it made perfect sense that she’d ask if I could hear her okay. The catch is that the only thing she wants – and that any of the so-called specialists want – is for you to say yes. It’s their reason for existence.
Do not fall for this! They’ll use the recording of you saying yes to claim that you agreed to let them bill you for their hearing aids, timeshare, libido enhancers or whatever else it is that they’re selling.
I’m embarrassed to say I once made the mistake of saying yes to a caller who said a virus had infected my computer and he needed my permission to access it. It would be nice to blame the mistake on my befuddlement with his nearly incomprehensible accent, but the real culprit was my own gullibility. Luckily, my credit card denied his fee of several hundred dollars to fix the non-existent problem.
One of the more novel calls is from an organization billing itself as the Hope and Prayers Ministry.
“If you need an urgent prayer, press one.”
If they call again, I’ll ask for an urgent prayer asking that Congress passes the Robocall Bill.
A woman who identified herself as Kathleen from Microsoft called to say my IP address had been compromised in several countries and unless I pressed nine to change it my computer would explode.
Kathleen didn’t really say that, or at least not all of it. I made up the exploding part. But she sounded sinister and threatening, as if at the very least she might come to my house and body-slam me.
The telemarketers have a virtual armada of these recorded voices – Kathleen, Brooklyn, Maya, Roy, Janis, Brandi, Connor, Hanna, Robert, Naomi … And though they might be calling from Los Angeles, Chicago or some other distant city, the Caller ID on our phones displays a local area code. There should be a law against that, too.
The variety of approaches they use would be impressive if they weren’t so infuriating:
“This is a Visa-Mastercard representative calling to congratulate you on your excellent payment history. You now qualify for an interest-free offer. Press nine to speak to someone in our qualifications department.”
A call allegedly from East Glacier National Park claimed that a new life insurance benefit is now available in Idaho.
“To see if you qualify, press one.”
Another call warned that it was “the last courtesy call we will give you. To talk to a representative, press one. To talk to a shyster, press two. To skip the small talk and immediately send us a large amount of money, enter your credit card number.”
Okay, I made up most of that one, too. One company, however, did ask for my credit card number. It wanted to charge me a monthly fee that would allow me to see my health-care providers and have the company pay what my insurance wouldn’t. The company seemed to be legitimate so I checked its website. Not one of my providers was in its network.
For tips on how to avoid these sorts of calls, I spoke with Dale Dixon of Better Business Bureau Northwest and Pacific.
The easiest way to protect yourself, he said, is not to answer the phone if it’s a number you don’t recognize. If you answer and hear silence, hang up. Don’t press one, nine or any other number. That confirms that you’re a real person and you’ll get even more calls.
“And never return a call out of curiosity,” Dixon said. “Scammers use call spoofing that makes it looks like it’s a local call just a digit or two off of your own. If you’re curious and call back, you confirm in their database that you’re a real person and they turn around and sell your number.
“…You can ask your carrier about anti-scam tools that it provides. And there are settings on smartphones that will help. I have one that sends calls from anyone not in my callers list straight to voicemail.”
Or, maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe Congress will pass the Robocall Bill this year and we won’t have to worry about this anymore.
That would be kind of sad for the likes of Kathleen, Brooklyn and Maya, though. They’d have to find another line of work.
Picking pockets, perhaps.