The attackers struck without warning during the hectic holiday season, pinpointing a target in our homeland from half a world away.
It was your home telephone.
And even though you quickly realized what the evildoers were doing – telemarketing or even worse, scamming – you felt powerless to make them stop.
All you could do was hang up. Maybe you even said something that gave you a nanosecond of satisfaction. But you knew you couldn’t stop them from calling and conning (or harassing) again.
You’ve had it with all those calls from “Rachel of cardholder services.” Also the lady who wants to give you a free cruise; and the guys whose thick, clipped foreign accents say they’re probably in India even as they insist, “My-name-is-Bob!” He tells you “I’m from the computer company” and says something has gone wrong inside your computer, but he can fix it. Or that he can fix your student loan problem.
For years you thought your Caller ID would tip you by flashing “Caller Unknown” or some 800 number. But that is so very 20th century. Today’s con artists start by conning your Caller ID; they can make it show any fake number they want.
You thought this stuff would be stopped way back when you signed onto the U.S. government’s “Do Not Call Registry,” run since 2003 by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC says that effort has been “enormously successful” as legitimate U.S. telemarketers have paid big fines when caught calling numbers on the Do Not Call list. But that too is a very 20th-century assessment.
Now the FTC concedes technology overtook bureaucracy. Evildoers in distant lands can cheaply use computerized robocall operations to blast-call limitless random numbers in the USA – hoping to con you into revealing credit card or financial info.
So the FTC has embarked upon a new crime-stopping challenge: harness private and government resources to discover new tech solutions to shut down these high tech telephonies.
Birkham Bandy, coordinator of the FTC’s Do Not Call program, has no illusions that his agency is close to finding solutions to halt faraway phone call criminals. He likens it to trying to develop a foolproof filter capable of halting the phone call equivalent of email spam – but far more challenging, technologically.
“It is not going to happen overnight or in the next few months,” Bandy told me. “But it can happen in a couple of years.”
The problem centers on “Caller ID spoofing,” he says. While emails must originate from a specific address, phone callers can now disguise and falsify their originating number.
So far, several significant steps have been taken – some publicly, others quietly.
A new website – nomorobo.com – was created through the FTC Robocall Challenge, a public-private initiative. It works with Internet-based providers, not copper-wire based carriers. It seeks to identify robocall efforts that are not legitimate (distinguishing between scams and legit efforts such as school-closing notifications). Then it blocks the illegitimate robocalls. The website is free to all – just register your phone number and opt in.
The FTC also runs a little-discussed effort that sets up so-called “honeypots” that lure robocall scammers into dialing in. Then officials seek to track down and close down their operations overseas.
And that mainly reminds us of the potential power of big-name geopolitical clout – the sort that can be commanded at levels even higher than that of the FTC’s Bandy. For instance: President Barack Obama.
Since Americans of all political persuasions are fed up with phone scammers – perhaps we’ve finally found a common cause: we’d like to see Obama become the outspoken champion of all who are fed up with phone call cons and crooks.
Perhaps he can harness secret expertise within the National Security Agency so we can better track down and shut down robocall scammers who operate overseas unhindered by unseeing authorities.
Indeed, perhaps the president can forge a new highest-level global effort to halt all this high tech harassment and scamming of citizens around the world. Other efforts have reportedly targeted phone numbers in Australia and Canada.
We may even have found something here in which the United Nations can play a purely positive, surely noncontroversial, game-changing role.
Clearly, none of this rises to levels of war and peace. Or does it?
After all, it does hit us all where we live. We may have finally found a declarable war in which everyone – all leaders, all people – end up winners. Except for the con artists, scammers and crooks.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.