Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Watch out for this nasty new trend in robocall scams

Can you believe robocall scammers are using COVID-19 as an excuse to rip people off? Sure. I knew you could.

Scum. Scummy. Scummy-scum. That's what I kept thinking as I started to put together this article. There are some people out there who are scum, scummy, scummy-scum. They use unfortunate events or unspeakable horrors as the foundation for scamming scared and vulnerable people out of their money.

Now they've decided that COVID-19 is the new MacGuffin that they can use to rip people off.

We have the survey numbers to prove it. A recent survey was conducted by Provision Living showed that a full 20% of survey participants received at least one Covid-related call or text. Worse, almost a quarter of the respondents (23%) said the pace of robocalling had increased since the start of the pandemic.

Now, admittedly, Provision Living is an odd organization to be conducting a robocall study, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Provision Living is an operator of senior living communities. They care for old folks.

Unfortunately, older folks are disproportionately victims of scams. It's not that the elderly are any less capable than the rest of us -- in fact, many have the wisdom of years many of us somewhat younger folks lack. But they're not quite as connected to the fast moving changes in how scammers are working, and as the elderly become more vulnerable, they also tend to become more scared, and make decisions out of fear.

Interestingly, while Provision's survey participants did include older folks, the average age of the 4,038 survey participants was 39, right at the upper age of the millennial generation. Millennials are generally considered to be the generation born between 1981 (39 years old) and 1996 (24 years old). According to the survey, 70% of this generational cohort are concerned that a parent or grandparent will become a victim of a robocall scam.

It's no wonder that 37% of those surveyed lost their temper and swore at a robocaller. Being a bottom-dwelling scam caller can't be an easy gig, but humans in call centers are being replaced by automation. Yes, even the crappiest of jobs is being taken over by robots.

Of course, not all call center jobs are scammy. Citigroup, for example, operates call centers with tens of thousands of humans. Unfortunately, if Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat has his way, those tens of thousands of human workers will be replaced by AI systems, saving the company big bucks and leaving its workers out in the cold.

Robocall trends

Let's get back to the robocall trends Provision elicited from its survey participants. 39% reported callers claiming to be from the Social Security Administration. 38% reported callers claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service. Fake travel companies (at 36%) and fake debt collectors (at 33%) round out the list of the most common types of scam robocalls.

But Covid-related scams are on the rise. In addition to robocalls, 19% of respondents said they had to endure a Covid-related scam text as well.

Scam topics are just what you might expect if you're trying to scare folks who are already worried about a worldwide crisis: treatments, free testing, financial relief, fake warnings of virus exposure, and low-cost insurance. Here's Provision's chart that breaks down the percentages:

survey-how-often-americans-receive-robocalls-provision-living-2020-07-05-20-53-17.jpg

Provision Living

To deal with all these calls, 70% Provision's survey respondents report simply don't answer calls from "unknown" callers and 30% installed a call-blocking app, which almost half (47%) paid for. Unfortunately, their experience mirrored mine, which is that 62% say the call blocking app didn't actually block many calls.

Final thoughts

There are a couple of final thoughts worth sharing. First, of course, there are scum, scummy, scummy-scum people out there, so keep your BS-detector on high when answering the phone. Remember that state and federal agencies will not ask you for money over the phone, so don't give out your credit card or other personal identifying information.

And, when in doubt, hang up. You really won't hurt R2D2's feelings if you do. He'll just dial another potential victim and run his routine all over again.


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