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Robocalls: 'Cat and mouse game' continues with pandemic-specific scams

Clayton LiaBraaten, Truecaller Senior Strategic Advisor, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss his company's data on global robocalls and spam calls in 2021 and the social engineering tactics these scammers use.

Video transcript

- According to new data, Americans receive about 1.4 billion spam calls a month. And almost 60 million people have lost money in the space of just 12 months. And that is due to con people. We want to talk about it all with Clayton Liabraaten, the Truecaller senior strategic advisor. And Clayton, good to have you here. Just break this down for us because I thought some measures were in place among some of the big tech companies and some governments. And Congress passed some laws. I thought this was going to solve the problem. But, anecdotally, I can say maybe it's increased over the last few months.

CLAYTON LIABRAATEN: Yeah. Jared, thanks for having me. Happy new year. So the fact is that the commissions-- the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission-- have taken some bold steps in concert with the carriers here in the US to try to mitigate a lot of the robocall and spam calling. But those measures notwithstanding, this is a lot like cybersecurity. It's a cat and mouse game. And for every countermeasure, there's an equal and opposite circumvention. And the criminals are very clever. There's a lot of ingenuity there. And they're able to circumvent these rules. And throughout the pandemic itself, the increase in robocalls globally, as we just highlighted in our global report, has increased steadily throughout the pandemic.

- And what kinds of calls are we talking about? I imagine there's got to be a host of pandemic scams going on. But in particular, what are the trends that you're noticing?

CLAYTON LIABRAATEN: So early on we saw a lot of fake tests, fake cures in certain countries. Pay a premium to get into a hospital bed because they were scarce. Maybe it was oxygen. Over time then, all the derivative use cases that we saw, jobs, investing your stimulus money, PPE, all of those types of things. The scamsters are very astute social engineers, pay a lot of attention to current events. And they tap into that, tap into the fears of the vulnerable, and try to victimize them.

- And according to your notes, number of spam calls in the US pretty consistent over the last few years. But it's the spam text that are really upping here. And I got another anecdotal observation here. I get them in clusters. So I'll get 10 or 12. And then they'll stop for a while. And they come back. What's going on here?

CLAYTON LIABRAATEN: So really, the measure is called STIR/SHAKEN that the SEC and the carriers put in place to knock down some of what's known as spoofing, or the calls you used to get, or you sometimes get from your same area code that will increase your propensity to pick up the phone. As those measures went into place, the bad guys decided to start texting. And they do text in bursts. They're very agile with the originating numbers that they use. And it's just a numbers game for them, right. So they will either try to text you and get you to call back, or they will text you with a nefarious link to link into. And I expect it in 2022, we will see that increase even more as the success rate is increasing for those text criminals.

- And why is this so hard to block, to stop? Is it that they're so ingenious they use the social engineering tools that they keep ahead of some of the big tech companies and the regulators here in the US? Or is it something else?

CLAYTON LIABRAATEN: Well, there's a number of things, right. I think the internet itself, which enables so many of the communication-type platforms that we use today, we call them the over-the-top platforms or the voice over internet protocol platforms, that has allowed anybody to really become a phone company and either issue phone numbers or emulate those phone numbers. And it's very difficult to stay ahead of this. It's also a global problem. Our global report shows the top 20 countries and the bottom 20 countries as the case may be. And in just the volume of this type of activity internationally and as the world has kind of shrunk and people are calling one another from various geographies, it just opens up the door for criminal fraudsters to take advantage of that.

- And to your point, it's never been easier to switch telephone numbers. You can do it in a few minutes by filling out a form. There are ways around it. How much is identity theft playing into this because this was a hot button issue even 20 years ago, largely before the internet came into force.

CLAYTON LIABRAATEN: Sure, right. So telemarketing was always an issue. And, of course, then we had the Do Not Call list. But the concepts of number portability and, again, voice over IP allows you to simulate those phone numbers. There's a lot of imposter scams that go on out there. And I think that the volumes will continue to increase despite the efforts of carriers and regulators, and I think in particular to see a lot of international traffic as well.

- Yeah. Well, I hope everyone figures it out. They're a true annoyance, I have to say. And I appreciate your time. Clayton Liabraaten, Truecaller senior strategic advisor.