In November, the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) announced that the owner and operator of an India-based call center was sentenced to prison for scamming U.S. victims out of millions of dollars. The forty-four-year-old based operator will spend upwards of twenty years in prison and was ordered to pay restitution of nearly $8.8 million to victims of his crimes.
“The long arm of federal law enforcement was key to bringing this con artist to justice,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick of the Southern District of Texas in a statement.
“Across the globe, U.S. law enforcement is chasing and dismantling these schemes,” Patrick added.
However, the question is whether the U.S. efforts to chase and dismantle are actually doing enough? Judged by the volume of calls most Americans continue to get, it would seem the DoJ is facing a proverbial Hydra—where if you cut off on head, two more grow back in its place.
Just a month after the DoJ’s announcement, The New York Times reported that police in New Delhi arrested more than fifty individuals who were involved in a call-center scheme. In this particularly insidious operation, the scammers preyed on American victims and said that their assets were being seized by U.S. law enforcement agencies and they faced arrest or could choose an “alternative dispute resolution” that included the transfer of the money through their bank accounts, Bitcoins or Google gift cards.
While efforts have been made to inform and educate the American public, some 4,500 Americans still fell for the scam and officials estimate the crime ring made more than $14 million in a two-year period.
The rise in some nefarious operations has grown because India has become one of the primary locations of international call centers. More than 1.2 million people are employed in the industry, and while much of it is legitimate, criminals have adapted it towards a number of criminal efforts. Some involve emailing would-be victims with links to websites that install malware—but it is the so-called “robo-calls” that seem to be most ubiquitous and potentially dangerous as these target those who don’t typically use computers such as the elderly and those in the lower income brackets.
Will Biden Act?
President Joe Biden named Rohit Chopra to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, after previously serving as a deputy at the consumer agency. He has worked on student loan issues and helped secure funding for individuals who were unlawfully targeted by debt collectors. However, it remains unclear if the CFPB would work closely with the DoJ and Federal Communications Commission to crack down on robo-calls and other telemarketing scams. For now, it seems that the Biden administration will do little if anything to combat these calls.
Perhaps phone scams might seem like a problem that doesn’t fall into the purview of the White House—but it should and actually it does, at least in a roundabout fashion. For one, the Biden Administration could put pressure on India to do more. After all, while New Delhi has stepped up efforts it certainly isn’t enough. A threat to withhold financial aid to India could be a good start.
The administration has made efforts to address income inequality in this country, to combat systemic racism and to solve the college debt problem. Those are all noble issues to resolve, but these phone scams deserve attention as well—for one they are impacting the very Americans that can afford it the least.
Technology to the Rescue
If the administration doesn’t act, a question should be asked as to how the calls can be stopped by the phone companies?
“Technology can be employed to stop these calls and limit the ability to spoof numbers,” said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle, principal at the Enderle Group.
“There just hasn’t been much of an incentive to fix the problem,” Enderle told The National Interest. “You could crowdsource reporting, you could use the same kind of Deep Learning AI that Deep Instinct uses to look for this behavior and block it almost immediately, but without the incentives to make this happen, it isn’t getting done.”
However, the problem may not be the low effort required and the potential return on investment (ROI).
“This is simple market economics,” added Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. “The calls continue since their value to phone scammers still outweighs their cost. It takes millions of calls to find a single victim, but for the most part those calls are free, so even a small scam brings pure profit. The dialing and screening is entirely automated, as is the hand off to some sweatshop worker with the menial task of completing a con.”
However, technology could still play a role in lowering the volume of the calls.
“Software to manage this work flow is pretty easy to create, and unsurprisingly this is all done over the Internet,” Purtilo told The National Interest. “We’re all happy when internet-based phone services make our lives simpler; for example, we can get voice mail routed to an email address, even with speech-to-text so we can read the note, not just hear recorded audio.”
That API (application programming interface) lets innovative entrepreneurs offer these services is the same one that lets someone automate sketchy activities, complete with forged Caller ID to make it look like Aunt Barbara is calling, added Purtilo.
The issue is still that almost none of these calls originate domestically.
“Those would be far easier to localize to a source and close,” said Purtilo. “Instead, the majority originate internationally in order to dodge domestic regulations and reduce the cost of labor. Once a call crosses that border there is little ability to reach back and discover actionable information.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.