BY KYLE ARNOLD
ORLANDO – A local number on Evan Dimov’s caller ID and a confident voice on the other line had the Orlando restaurant owner convinced he was in imminent danger of having his power shut off.
When the caller asked for a Western Union money order, Dimov grew suspicious and called his utility, Orlando Utilities Commission, to verify.
It was a scammer, one of many inundating phones in Central Florida and nationwide with increasingly convincing pitches and tricks.
Legal for decades
Robocalls are on the rise, powered by an increase in “spoofing” local numbers for caller IDs. Spoofing makes it seem as if you’re getting a local call, even if the calls are placed online from the other side of the world.
Phone number spoofing has been a legal practice for decades, often used by large companies, schools or governments so that all numbers coming from one building appear to be from one number.
In the early 2000s internet-based calling allowed web users to start using spoofing to alter or hide caller IDs, through companies like Star38.com and Spoofcard.com. Telemarketers quickly adopted the practice.
But sometime earlier this year, scammers latched on to spoofing, said Holly Salmons, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Central Florida.
Hard to stop
Consumers, businesses and advocacy groups are frustrated by the practice and say it’s hard to stop annoying calls when there’s little indication where the calls are coming from.
“I get the calls all the time,” said Dimov. “It’s gotten so bad that I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize.”
A Federal Trade Commission representative told a Senate Committee in October that the number of robocall complaints through the first nine months of 2017 has already surpassed the total from all of 2016.
They pointed to phone number spoofing as a major concern because the scammers and telemarketers circumvent laws and anti-spamming measures, such as the National Do Not Call Registry.
“It’s hard to make a complaint when you don’t know who to complain about,” Salmons said.
Central Florida has had its share of aggressive telemarketers that have drawn the attention of federal and state regulators.
The FTC and the Florida Attorney General’s Office wrapped up a case in June against an Orlando-based company, Payless Solutions, that pitched “worthless credit card interest rate reduction programs,” according to an FTC news release.
Regulators sued Payless Solutions for using robocallers to call consumers and convince them to sign up for a debt-reduction program, which charged $300 to $4,999 up front.
Regulators won $4.9 million in judgments against 12 people charged in the case and banned 10 of them from using robocall technology again.
But technology such as spoofing, a legal practice, leaves federal regulators at a loss as to who to go after.
“I’ve even had my own cellphone number call me before,” said Salmons, who noted there has been an increase in complaints to the BBB. “Often it’s your own area code and prefix, so you glance at the phone and think it’s local, so you pick it up.”
Using internet-based calling, the scammers can now call thousands of numbers in a short period of time and give the impression that the calls are from people that live nearby.
Advice: Ignore them
Usually the callers are phishing for information, Salmons said. Common calls include pitches for health care coverage or credit card debt reduction. Callers are looking for credit card numbers, Social Security numbers or addresses.
Most of the time, it’s a recorded message, reducing the manpower required make the calls.
Salmons recommends ignoring the phone calls and sending them straight to voicemail.
Orlando Utilities Commission spokesman Tim Trudell said OUC has been targeted for years by scammers, who often threaten to turn off electricity unless a payment is made.
“We are never going to call someone and tell them their electricity is going to be turned off with so little notice,” Trudell said. “It takes longer than that, and we are never going to require payment be made by sending a pre-paid credit card.”
Trudell said some customers are swindled out of cash this way and that complaints are forwarded to law enforcement.
Technology providers are working ways to thwart spoofing and robocalling scams.
Recently some phone companies started flagging suspicious calls with the name “Scam Likely” name to warn consumers, said Jonathan Sasse, a spokesman for First Orion Corp., a technology company working with providers, such as T-Mobile.
“We have a ton of data and you can analyze call patterns, and, for instance, see when a certain number goes from 10 calls a day to 1,000,” Sasse said.
U.S. Senator Bob Casey, R-Pa., sent a letter to the FCC in April asking it to block calls from numbers known to spoof other numbers.
However, Sasse said it could be complicated for carriers to find a technological solution to the problem and taken even longer for lawmakers to pass laws against it.
“Spoofing is an interesting challenge because it’s an actual loophole in the law,” Sasse said.