If it seems like telemarketing and robocalls have been on the rise lately in Kentucky, it’s not your imagination. Scammers – armed with ever-improving technology – are finding innovative ways to skirt the rules.
You know the routine.
The phone rings. You pick up and the first thing you hear is designed to get your heart beating – maybe "You've been selected to receive a free cruise to the Bahamas" or "This call is officially a final notice from the IRS."
Though it’s tricky to pin down hard data about state trends, the anecdotal evidence seems to point in one direction.
"In the last six to eight months, it does seem like it's gotten a lot more frequent," says Andrew Hedrick of Lexington.
Local attorney Kristin Wehking says, "It makes my phone unfortunately go off at bad times, during things when my phone should not be ringing or I wouldn't expect it to."
And that’s lighting up the switchboard at the Better Business Bureau serving central and eastern Kentucky.
"Almost every second or third call you pick up anymore here at the office is someone complaining about one of those calls," says BBB spokesperson Heather Clary.
Clary says advances in autodialing technology are allowing scammers to make thousands of phone calls a minute at a minimal cost. Even old standbys like caller ID aren't as trustworthy as they once were. Using a practice called “spoofing,” callers can easily mask their locations and plug in what appear to be local area codes. In some cases, recipients may look down and see they’re being called by… themselves.
"So your own name and number pops up on the caller ID," she says. "Not only does that give you some shock value, it's also a number you can't block."
And some robocalls are becoming harder to immediately detect. Clary points to one scam that begins with a voice feigning confusion – in order to get the caller to answer using one particular word.
"The individual on the other end almost sounds surprised. 'Oh, excuse me. I was have trouble with my headset. Can you hear me now?' That gets you to say yes, which is a kneejerk reaction, and then there's speculation as to what can happen with that 'yes,' which may be on tape," she cautions.
The worry is that companies could go on to make unauthorized charges and, when challenged, produce the audio of the caller appearing to agree.
All this generally leads to one question: So what good is the Do Not Call List?
"The Do Not Call List doesn't work well for two reasons," Attorney General Andy Beshear explains. "First, there are so many exceptions to it. Any charity, whether it is a charity that is truly providing funds to worthy causes or whether it's just trying to enrich the people that are making the calls, they're excepted from the Do Not Call List."
But more importantly, he says, "these scam artists are criminals."
That said, Beshear urges residents to get on the federal Do Not Call Registry because it has been successful in stopping some legitimate telemarketers. Then there are various apps that aim to screen and block unwanted calls using crowdsourcing to amass databases of spoofed numbers. And the attorney general’s office is offering scam alerts by texting KYOAG Scam to GOV311.
But ultimately, experts agree the best answer comes down to three little words: Just hang up.
Beshear says phone scams represent a massive criminal enterprise, with seniors losing over $3 billion to fraudsters in 2016 alone. Tracking down con artists, who may be overseas, is a tall order. For now, the state’s top law enforcement official says scammers go where the money is.
"As long as people continue to fall for these scams, those calls will continue to come," the attorney general warns. "But there is a day where we are educated enough and we prevent all of our neighbors from falling for scams that that phone will stop ringing."
But until then, it’s still buyer – and responder – beware.