- Robo-calling involves machines that randomly phone individuals
- Once answered, the robot is usually replaced by a real person who is a con artist
- They lure people into sharing personal details, such as bank account numbers
An invasion of ‘robo-callers’ is targeting Britain – with millions of people being hit by high-tech criminals intent on emptying bank accounts.
Robo-calling involves machines that randomly phone individuals on landlines and mobiles.
Once answered, the robot is usually replaced by a real person who is a con artist. They then lure people into sharing personal details, such as bank account numbers, through a variety of clever tricks.
These include explaining that you owe money to the Inland Revenue, are about to have your broadband service cut off or that you might want to give money to a charity. Those that subsequently give out such personal details might later become a victim of identity fraud and have their bank accounts emptied.
Even if you just answer the phone, you are often put on a ‘suckers’ list’ for further hounding in the future.
This menace already accounts for about half of all phone calls in the US , with con artists ripping off victims to the tune of £8billion a year. Now criminals are believed to have set their crosshairs across the Atlantic with the UK seen as ripe for exploitation.
And because it is so hard to track down where the calls are coming from – as they are often from abroad – few are caught or prosecuted.
Thanks to a loophole in the law, a foreign fraudster can find it easy to evade the police and regulators who can only tackle operators in Britain.
Frank Abagnale is a former con artist whose life story, which included famously impersonating airline pilots, was portrayed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 hit film Catch Me If You Can.
Now reformed and a security consultant who has worked for the FBI, the 71-year-old is author of the book Scam Me If You Can.
He says: ‘Robo-call scams exist because they work so well. Of course, there are legitimate calls – perhaps from doctors, dentists or your children’s school.
‘But the number of those that are just a scam is getting out of hand. About half of all robo-calls in the US are now from fraudsters trying to get your money.’
Abagnale points out that these con artists invest more than £300million a year in the US on high-tech gadgets to make such calls – and are rarely caught. Once the automated call has been picked up, then there is often a short pause on the line before a real person cuts in and then starts to try the scam.
He says: ‘Scripts and targets vary, but phoney pitches and demands often contain common questions for information that are easy to identify. Calls start with an attempt to grab attention, win trust and ask you to disclose personal data to get your money. People should respond by hanging up.’
Leonie Bentley, from Wokingham in Berkshire, has noticed a recent increase in robo-callers contacting her not just on her landline – but also on her mobile phone.
The 63-year-old English tutor says: ‘Last weekend, I was contacted out of the blue by a recorded message explaining that action was being taken against me because I had failed to pay a tax bill – unless I called back.
‘The timing was clever because as a self-employed person this is the time of year I file my accounts and pay my tax to the Inland Revenue. But being aware this is not how the taxman operates – that they usually write instead – I simply hung up.’
She then Googled the number to see if it was a genuine tax office number or whether it was identified with fraud. Nothing came up. But she did see that calls about bogus tax investigations were rife.
Gadgets to block unknown calls
There are a variety of gadgets on the market that can block callers that are not recognised and potentially pose a threat.
In Britain there are an estimated eight billion unwanted calls made each year
BT Premium Cordless Home Phone with Nuisance Call Blocking and Answering Machine. £70
Filters out scammers but enables callers to leave a message on an answering machine. Means you decide if you want to ring back or not.
A gadget that you plug into the existing phone line next to a handset.
It comes pre-loaded with 5,000 known nuisance scam numbers. But you can also input the specific number of an unwanted caller to put a stop to them.
Panasonic Digital Cordless Phone with Nuisance Call Blocker and Answering Machine. £40
Guards against unwanted callers and allows you to input numbers you do not want to let through.
Answer machine adds a layer of phone security. Siemens Gigaset Premium Cordless Phone with Answer Machine. £100
Enables you to recognise different callers using a pre-set change to your ring tone. Those that ring you without including a phone code can automatically be blocked.
In the past, Leonie has also been pestered by automated phone calls explaining her BT broadband service was being cut off – and that she had been involved in a car accident and had to call. She slammed the phone down on both occasions – the course of action everyone should take.
In Britain there are already an estimated eight billion unwanted calls made each year – with eight out of ten households receiving at least two nuisance calls every week.
The vast majority of these callers want nothing more than your money. It is important not to speak to anyone if you are unsure of who is calling – whether a robo-caller or even if it is a real salesperson. But you can also make it harder for them to get through by using phone block technology and embracing software and gadgets that are designed to filter out potential criminals.
Phone giant BT offers a free ‘call protect’ service for its landline users. This includes a BT ‘blacklist’ of callers the phone provider is already aware of that it blocks as potential scammers.
On top of this, you might like to add your own numbers or filter out certain types of calls – such as those coming from abroad – that goes straight to voicemail. To put a number on a call protect blacklist, simply hang up on the caller, dial 1572 and follow the instructions to ensure the number calling is blocked.
Any phone user can also sign up to the free Telephone Preference Service, even if they are not using a BT landline. By registering for this service at tpsonline.org.uk you should be able to block all unsolicited phone calls from British companies.
It includes more than 950 companies that are members of the Direct Marketing Association. Unfortunately, it will not put a stop to disreputable firms from abroad being able to get hold of you by phone – so robo-callers might sneak through the net. But you can still report them to the Information Commissioner’s Office at ico.org.uk and the telecoms regulator Ofcom by visiting Ofcom.org.uk.
Those who get an automated message on their mobile can block them from getting through again by changing phone settings. If you have an iPhone, press the ‘information’ button on the phone number that has just called and scroll down to the bottom of the page and press on the ‘block this caller’ setting.
For android phones, go into the ‘recents’ section and tap on ‘block’ for callers you want to filter out. There are also mobile phone apps, including the free ‘truecaller’, that provides a huge directory of numbers to help identify who the caller is – and if you want to answer the number or simply hang up.
For landlines, you can also include a call filtering service – though this often comes at an extra price.
While BT’s ‘call protect’ service is free, its ‘choose to refuse’ and ‘anonymous call rejection’ services cost £5.30 and £6.30 a month respectively. Sky customers can sign up to Talk Shield that blocks all robo-callers and is free. TalkTalk phone customers can also sign up to a free ‘callsafe’ service. Those that use Virgin Media can sign up to an anonymous caller-rejection feature if willing to pay £3 a month.
Article By TOBY WALNE FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY