Commentary: Robocalls are a different kind of cyberattack

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, file photo, Jen Vargas looks at a call log displayed via an AT&T app on her cellphone at her home in Orlando, Fla. The app helps locate and block fraudulent calls, although some robocalls still get through. On Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules giving phone companies greater authority to block automated messages known as robocalls from reaching customers. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

The U.S. is under a different sort of cyberattack — one that ultimately could be just as damaging and threatening as recent attacks on financial institutions and infrastructure that occurred over the internet. This threat, though not new, is the growing proliferation of robocalls within our telecommunications infrastructure.

In 2017, complaints to the FTC about robocalls had quintupled over the amount in 2009 to over 375,000 complaints per month. Furthermore, it is estimated that in 2019 over half of the calls individuals receive will be robocalls and, with the advances in technology, over 90 percent of those will be “spoofed” — that is, they will show a caller ID that is not the real number.

My own experience over the past year has been that robocalls have increased from a few a day to several an hour. More worrisome, in my opinion, is that the calls are shifting from being telemarketing calls to being nuisance and phishing calls. In one night recently I received 19 of these robocalls between midnight and 4 a.m., and there were frequent bursts of three or four that came close together.

Telemarketing calls at least have financial motivation and can therefore be influenced to some degree by threats of lawsuits and fines. The FTC and FCC purport to be battling the robocall threat using Do Not Call lists and by going after businesses with lawsuits and fines. The FTC website indicates that, to date, the agency has filed 100 lawsuits against the approximately 600 companies that are violating the regulations for robocalls.

I’m not sure they deserve great accolades, as 100 lawsuits address but a drop in the bucket of the 5 billion calls being made each month. Regardless, this focus of the regulators on the “legitimate” telemarketers is not the real danger we face — that of nuisance and phishing calls, which have no business purpose except to defraud and annoy, so there is no easy means to put a stop to them.

The danger is that, if a person answers the call, the caller then knows it is an active phone line to use in a follow-up attempt to defraud, or they can sell the number to other scammers. This, I fear, is an increasing trend with no limit in sight. Whether the intent is phishing, to inconvenience or to clog the phone system, if steps are not taken to combat this through technological innovations, it will eventually bring our telecommunications system to its knees.

Individuals might react to this by not answering any call that is not a number they recognize. This might work as long as the number of calls has not increased to the point that a “good” call cannot get through. However, consider the more onerous consequences for calls involving the country’s governments and infrastructure. In that case, calls cannot be screened based on familiarity and, as a result, someone answering the phone at a police station or city hall could ultimately be faced with having to answer the phone continuously while receiving only a small number of “real” calls, if they are even able to get through.

Is this growing trend a test of the system that will someday lead to an explosion of calls that will have dire consequences for our country? It is time that our leadership and our institutions like the FTC and FCC bring more firepower to task for dealing with this issue, including severe political and economic sanctions against countries that do not do enough to try to combat these renegades within their borders, and especially those that sponsor it for their political agendas.

Larry Montgomery, Salt Lake City, is an engineer with over 40 years’ experience in the aerospace industry.