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Stopping Illegal Robocalls Where They Start

Fighting One-Ring Scams

The One-Ring Scam is a curious beast that’s been around for some time and has now been highlighted in one section of the new TRACED act that’s sailing through the legislative process.

How it works: A scammer makes a very brief calls to a huge number of targets; he disconnects each of his call attempts after just one ring. Some fraction of the people he dialed see that they just missed a call, so they call back (in case it was important, or curious about who called).

What they don’t realize is that the call is very expensive. The scammer uses as his caller-ID a “premium rate” number in a foreign country. He’s got an arrangement with the phone company there to rebate back to him some of the excess they charge.

The scammer answers the callbacks with music or a message saying “Please hold for the next available agent” — anything to keep the caller on the line. When the victim finally hangs up, they’ve run up a bill of perhaps hundreds of dollars, and the scammer pockets some fraction of that. It’s quite lucrative if you place a million one-ring calls and get a few thousand victims (1%) to return the call. Since almost all the outbound calls the scammer places are not answered (he just allows one ring and then hangs up), he pays next to nothing for those.

The TRACED Act directs the FCC to investigate various measures to mitigate these scams, and to file a report to Congress about it. (See Section 12 of the Act.)

There are some simple solutions that the industry could implement right now, without new laws or regulations and without a lot of new technology.

1) When a subscriber places a call to an expensive destination (that is, when the victim tries to return the one-ring call), that subscriber’s service provider would first play a message: “Calls to this number will incur substantial charges. Please hang up if this is not your intent.” The service provider could have a flag on the lines of subscribers that routinely (intentionally) make such calls, causing the message to be bypassed.

2) Telephone software (iPhone and Android) could be enhanced so that if a phone user tries to call back a number from their history, a message would pop up for out-of-country numbers warning of the potential scam. If the number was in the user’s contact list, the warning would not appear.

Either of these would greatly reduce the damage done by these scams, and would be more effective and quicker to deploy than most of the suggestions made in TRACED. The ACT points out in part (b)(6) that voice service providers should never be permitting scammers to make these calls in the first place. (And although the Act implies that these calls are always originated from overseas, that isn’t necessarily the case — the scammer can be right here at home as long as he has the right connections to participate in the premium rate revenue.)

Others probably can improve upon these ideas or offer better alternatives.

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