By Ryan Tracy 

WASHINGTON -- In the war against illegal robocalls, enforcers claim something unusual: a few wins.

Scam phone calls pitching bogus coronavirus tests, phony remedies and nonexistent economic aid have proliferated in recent weeks, telecom tracking companies said, adding to other long-running cons aimed at draining bank accounts or obtaining credit-card information.

A telecom-industry task force, led by trade association USTelecom, said it recently identified and cut off a barrage of virus-related calls it suspected were phony, with help from federal agencies. The alleged scams included pitches for free testing kits, work-from-home jobs with Amazon.com Inc. and cleaning of air ducts supposedly to fight the virus.

Phone companies shut down the accounts where the calls originated after being notified and, in some cases, threatened with legal action, said officials from USTelecom and the Federal Communications Commission.

"It's progress," said Alex Quilici, chief executive of YouMail Inc., which tracks robocalls through a consumer smartphone app and flagged some of the suspect calls. "It's showing that certain classes of these calls can be shut down."

It is rare for authorities to act on a stream of robocalls so quickly, said Kevin Rupy, a communications lawyer at Wiley Rein LLP, who previously worked at USTelecom.

"Rapidly identifying the source of these calls and getting them shut down -- that is a game changer," he said.

More broadly, some evidence suggests Americans are receiving fewer unwanted phone calls.

Starting around March 16, TNS Inc., another robocall-tracking firm, saw daily volume of unwanted robocalls drop as much as 40% compared with the previous week. YouMail also reported robocall volumes declined, from 4.8 billion calls in February in the U.S. to 4.1 billion in March.

That trend may be temporary, and TNS numbers show the rate of decline has slowed. "We think calls were coming from call centers that had difficulty adjusting to this work-from-home order," said Bill Versen, chief product officer for TNS.

But to put a lasting dent in the number of scam robocalls, experts said phone companies must get better at detecting and responding to them. "The most effective way to block these calls is to prevent them" in the first place, Mr. Rupy said.

A suspected coronavirus-testing-kits scam has provided a real-time test.

On March 13, YouMail said it detected a wave of dubious phone calls mentioning the virus.

"If you want to receive a free testing kit delivered overnight to your home, press one," said a voicemail, captured by YouMail. Certified testing kits have been difficult to obtain in the U.S. and aren't generally available for home delivery.

YouMail forwarded information about the calls to the Industry Traceback Group, a team of telecommunications experts led USTelecom. On March 17, the ITG traced one of the calls using information provided by U.S. phone companies, a USTelecom spokesman said.

The trail led to a phone company in the Philippines. USTelecom said. The FCC and Federal Trade Commission identified the company as VoIPMax, which couldn't be reached for comment.

"ITG notified this provider it was carrying suspect traffic bound for the U.S. related to the coronavirus," said the spokesman, Brian Weiss, in an email. "Within 24 hours the provider responded to ITG, telling us that it had 'identified the customer and disabled/removed the account.'"

Between March 17 and March 18, suspect calls pitching coronavirus tests dropped by about 75%, according to YouMail's analysis of evidence including robocall volumes and captured voicemails. After March 20, YouMail said they had virtually disappeared.

Things might have played out differently as recently as a year ago. The traceback effort significantly increased in 2019, thanks to technology changes and intensified telecom industry efforts. Traces can now be completed in an hour, according to USTelecom. It can take weeks or months for federal investigators to gather enough evidence to bring a legal case against a suspected robocaller.

USTelecom doesn't have the authority to order a phone company to cut off a customer. But its requests carry more weight because the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission have recently taken small phone companies to court for failing to shut down customers identified as the source of illegitimate calls.

The FCC and FTC on Friday wrote public letters to three U.S. providers of Internet-based phone services, accusing them of facilitating fraudulent coronavirus robocalls from Philippines-based VoIPMax and another company in Pakistan. The agencies threatened the providers with an effective shutdown of their business: If they don't stop transmitting harmful traffic from the customers in question within 48 hours, the FCC will authorize other U.S. phone companies to block their calls.

The three providers have cut off the customers, an FCC official said in an interview Friday. The agency hopes the letters sent a message to other phone companies, the official said.

To be sure, illegal calls continue to flood the telephone network, according to robocall-tracking firms. Robocall scammers often work with multiple phone companies, hiding their calls amid millions of legitimate robocalls, such as those about pharmacy prescriptions or school closures.

Once authorities cut off one path for illegal calls, criminals can often find another, leaving authorities to play a game of "whack-a-mole" according to experts.

One longer-term solution could come from Congress.

On Feb. 21, Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine), Kyrsten Sinema (D. Ariz.) and Martha McSally (R. Ariz.) wrote to the FCC asking if it had the authority to require phone companies to vet customers before allowing them to place large numbers of calls.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai hasn't yet responded, according to the agency's website.

In the meantime, authorities and phone companies are working to cut off more scams. "Whack-a-mole only works when you have a big hammer, you pound it quickly and you pound it often," Mr. Quilici said.

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 05, 2020 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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