Carl Wernicke: When It Comes To The War With Telebots, Fight Fire With Fire

Jul 5, 2017

It’s happened to you. It’s probably happening more and more these days. Your cell phone rings. It’s a number you don’t recognize.  

Yes, you learned long ago to not answer calls from any number you didn’t recognize with an out of town area code. But now, it’s often an 8-5-0 area code, even the same first three numbers as your number, one of the newest tricks.

You think it might be the pharmacy, or the plumber you called. So, you answer.

All too often today, these calls turn out to be marketers or scammers. The FCC lists robocalls as its top consumer complaint.

And yes, long ago you gratefully put your name on the National Do Not Call Registry, and for awhile it helped. No more. As one expert put it, if you are a spammer in India making a million calls a day, how likely is it that you will be caught and fined?

As it turns out, I registered my phone back in 2007. So much for that.

So what do you do?

Back when I had the dinosaur known as a landline, toward the end about the only calls we got on it were spam; you know the drill … you say hello, there’s a pause, and then a recording or a human with a heavy foreign accent launches a sales spiel.

One advantage of going cellular, we were told, was an end to this blizzard of spam. (Which, by the way, is a poor word choice. I happen to really like the food product known as Spam, and it is very disappointing to see that name now used as a slur. )

Anyway, new technology always comes with both good and bad, and I’ve aired my share of complaints about technology’s shortcomings.

But this is NOT one of those laments. No, I come here today to tell you about one of the most exciting uses of technology since, oh, the robot vacuum cleaner.

If you are like me, you dreamed about combating telephone marketers by keeping them on the line until they gave up, screaming in frustration. The idea was to talk aimlessly, ask them repeatedly to repeat themselves or to hold the line while you answer the door or argue with a stubborn child, all the while expressing interest in whatever they are offering. You just keep them going until it dawns on them that you are wasting their time as aggressively as they are wasting yours. You win by turning the tables. And winning in the technology war is not easy.

But that takes time, and a certain boldness.

But now … there is app for this! I should have known; today there’s an app for everything. When you get a call, you just engage the app, and a robot program takes over, designed to keep the spammer engaged as long as possible. They put hilarious examples on their websites of increasingly frustrated marketers trying to get a seemingly distracted consumer to focus on the sales pitch. Warning: these examples often contain profanity.

And, there is still hope that government will help. The FCC just fined a Florida company $120 million for making 96 million spam calls in only three months. This company used what in spammer lingo is called “neighborhood spoofing,” using local area codes. Of course, the next day I got a spam call using both my area code and the same first three digits as my number.

Still, the good news is that with the new apps you no longer have to wait for help. THIS is technology I can get behind. I might just have to revise my grim view of our technological future.