Rise of the robocall machines

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Twice on Monday, an hour or so apart, a robot with a woman’s voice called Tim at his Central Kitsap house, warning him that the IRS was going to file a lawsuit to collect back taxes and that he better call her back.

“Don’t disregard this message and do return the call,” the recorded voice said. “This issue is very serious.” The number had a Virginia area code.

Tim is savvy, though. A retired shipyard worker, he does his own taxes and isn’t about to fall for the okey doke, a robocall phone scam that has been reported as far away as Florida.

Of course, then there is “Rachel from credit card services,” another robot Tim has gotten to know.

“That’s a classic,” Tim said, but noted sometimes “Rachel” switches it up and instead it is “Kimberley” calling. “I get that one a lot.”

Although Tim isn’t going to become a vic anytime soon, somebody out there must be falling prey to the new generation of telephone scam artists, which use technology to trawl for potential victims.

The Federal Trade Commission has noted a “significant increase” in “illegal robocalls” and the same day the “IRS” twice called Tim, National Public Radio published a report from a computer security expert who said those ghost calls — your phone rings but nobody is on other line — could be robots probing your number to determine if it is connected to a real life human, who might make a good real life victim.

“They’re trying to see: Are they getting a human on the other end?” Vijay Balasubramaniyan, CEO of Pindrop Security, told NPR. “You even cough and it knows you’re there.”

Even if a person isn’t at risk of turning over bank account information or Social Security numbers, it’s unnerving, and irritating.

“It’s getting to be insane,” Tim said.

A woman from Kitsap Lake I spoke with in June said her 98-year-old mother gets multiple scam calls a week. She received a similar call as the one Tim received, and thought the cops were coming to haul away her mom. She was ready to block the door until she called Bremerton Police, who told her, no, don’t worry, that was a trick.

Real human non-robots are still prowling the phone lines, though, so don’t despair that the robots are taking all the good con jobs from human thieves.

A Bremerton convenience store got swindled in January when a man posing as an agent of Puget Sound Energy called to say power was about to be shut off at the store unless the storekeeper ponied up some money. Maybe it was the human touch, but it wasn’t until after the woman wired in the money that it struck her: she had been had.

A Bremerton police officer called the telethief and had an informative conversation about the swindle – something you just can’t do with a robot. The conman confessed to getting a little fresh with the woman he bilked, but he also apologized for his off-color remarks.

Robots don’t get fresh, but then again, they also can’t apologize, unless they are programmed to apologize. But can they be programmed to mean it?

 

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