It was bad, yes. I was getting perhaps three calls a day from numbers that were “UNKNOWN” or “NOT LISTED” or from my own phone number with a few digits switched. The caller invariably told me to give to the Police Foundation or that he was conducting a quick survey or that I needed to turn myself in to the police for four serious allegations. I stopped answering calls from numbers I didn’t know, sending them to voicemail and, later, warily reading the transcript on my iPhone. Listening made me too furious; I needed a barrier of technology between myself and the swindlers’ saccharine voices.
Then I went to visit my parents, who have a landline, and realized I was actually getting off easy. Their phones ring all hours of the day and night. They never answer. When I told my mom I was tempted to yank the phone near my bed out of the wall, she answered with a shrug: “We don’t use it.”
If you’ll indulge me in a moment of nostalgia: We used it once. We didn’t even have caller ID. We just picked up. My sister and I have identical voices, which led to all sorts of amusing mishaps. She once had a minutes-long conversation with my high school boyfriend; she thought he was a friend with the same name, he thought she was me.
Now my folks have Caller ID, and scammers announce themselves with varying levels of specificity. Sometimes, they’re a country. MOLDOVA calls before breakfast, while we scream and burrow under the covers.
I’m still tempted to pick up my cell sometimes. Writer Panama Jackson once sent an UNKNOWN call to voicemail and it was OPRAH. Oprah!
For me, it’s never Oprah. It’s someone calling me “Mister Melissa” or telling me I won a cruise. Oh, also, there is no cruise.
According to a recent report, spam calls made up 3.7% of total calls in 2017. In 2018, they were more than 29%. Next year, they’re projected to make up 45% of total calls.
That’s absurd and infuriating.
In some cases, it’s dangerous. Spammers don’t call just to waste your time — sure, they’re happy to do that — but by the end, they’ll take your money, whether by credit card number or wire transfer. Often, there are fake threats attached: that you’re in trouble with the IRS or that you have an outstanding loan or that your loved one is in jail. These calls disproportionately swindle vulnerable people; the undocumented, uneducated or elderly.
Spam calls fall under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission. Back in 2016, when spam calls accounted for 60% of the complaints his commission received, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said eliminating them was his “top consumer protection priority.”
Since then, the FCC has undertaken piecemeal steps, like allowing carriers to label certain numbers NUISANCE LIKELY or slapping offenders with fines. (In May, the commission fined a south Florida man a record $120 million for placing fraudulent calls.) But if my cellphone and my parents’ landline are any indication, the FCC is playing whack-a-mole with Hydras.
The police don’t know what to do either. After spammers started placing calls using a Florida business’ phone number, angry customers called the business back to complain, overwhelming its operations. The head of the Clearwater police’s economic crimes unit told the Tampa Bay Times: “It’s just a phone call. It could come from the internet. It could come from a phone. There’s nothing to follow up on.”
In other words: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
University of Florida professor Patrick Traynor said: “There’s a real risk that if we don’t address this problem, the utility of the phone will go away. It already has.” He called the situation “a technological tragedy.”
That phrase is provocative. Our phones have been made irrelevant as phones. This isn’t a rant on the social choices of millennials — Those avocado toast munchers only text! They never call! — it’s a statement of fact. You can’t pick the damn thing up, which is precisely half of what it’s good for. If your bike had one wheel, would you keep riding it? Maybe, but you’d feel like you were in the circus. As we do.
The best solution I’ve found is to keep my cell on silent unless I’m expecting to hear from someone. As for my folks, they could unplug the landline. Eventually, in a fit of rage, they will. But they live in a rural area; the cell tower goes down a dozen times a year during snowstorms. And what if a long-lost friend were on the line?
My mother, bless her, doesn’t hang up on the rare occasion she gets fooled into answering. Instead, she says firmly, “Please take me off your list.” They never do, of course. They call back the next day.
We’re fortunate to have a roof over our heads and all the socks we need. So for Christmas this year, we want just two things: peace on Earth, and for the Godforsaken spammers to stop calling.