If you’ve ever answered a call to your cellphone that had an unfamiliar number but a local area code, making you wonder well maybe I ought to see who this is only to find out it’s a spam call, we have some bad news. That’s going to happen a lot more next year.
A new report is out predicting that almost half of all U.S. mobile traffic in 2019 will be attributable to scam calls. The forecast comes from Arkansas-based First Orion, a company that offers caller ID and call blocking technology and thinks such calls will hit 45 percent of all cellphone calls next year. That’s up from just 3.7 percent last year, which ballooned to almost 30 percent this year.
In a company blog post, First Orion said that it’s “carefully analyzed over 50 billion calls made to … customers over the past 18 months. By combining specific call patterns and behaviors with other phone number attributes, First Orion now predicts that nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be fraudulent in 2019 unless the industry adopts and implements more effective call protection solutions.”
A big reason for the explosion in calls is that reason we mentioned right at the top. First Orion goes on to explain the most popular method to get people to pick up the phone is known as “Neighborhood Spoofing,” which happens when a scammer masks their own number and makes a local number show up on the recipient’s caller ID. Not only does that trick fool the person being called, but the owner of that faux local number that was used to make the call often gets return calls from the recipient of the scam call.
And, of course, third-party call blocking apps really don’t cut it when it comes to blocking these calls, since they really only blacklist known scam numbers, the First Orion post explains. “Not legitimate numbers that are momentarily hijacked by scammers.”
“Year after year, the scam call epidemic bombards consumers at record-breaking levels, surpassing the previous year and scammers increasingly invade our privacy at new extremes,” First Orion CEO and head data scientist Charles Morgan explains in the company’s blog post.
The problem is so pervasive that even FCC chairman Ajit Pai gets these same spoofed scam calls. He told NPR’s Planet Money in August of last year that “every now and then, even on my work Blackberry, I’ll see a call that seems to be coming . . . from the 202 area code, which is here in Washington — and then our prefix for these Blackberries. And I know for a fact that, you know, it’s probably not someone calling from the office. Sometimes, I answer just for the heck of it. And it’s– lo and behold, I’ve won a vacation… .”
Speaking of the FCC, the agency says it gets more than 200,000 complaints a year about unwanted calls. According to its 2016 estimate, Americans got about 2.4 billion unwanted calls a month, a number it’s probably fair to say has been far surpassed in the two years since then.
Just last week, analyst reports from Wall Street investment firms highlighted the fact that revenues for wireless networks are going up rather than down for a change. We pointed out that what’s good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for the consumer, and new data from the Labor Department, highlighted by the WSJ, definitively shows that those wireless company revenue increases are coming right out of your pocket.
The consumer-price index for wireless phone service, a government-calculated metric for the price of cell service, is up 0.3% in June 2018 compared to a year earlier. That might seem like an insignificant difference, but technology improvements and competition have traditionally pushed that metric down, not up; the last such increase was in July 2016, nearly two years ago.
What’s more, the price increase makes little sense when you consider the stage we’re at with wireless network infrastructure. 4G LTE is now a mature technology, and wireless companies have stopped scrambling to build out entirely new networks. Capital expenditure has been relatively constant for the last five years, and while 2017 was slightly up on 2016 in terms of spending, it wasn’t enough to warrant a significant increase in prices. Yes, networks are putting in the ground work for 5G networks, but you can be sure that consumers are going to be paying the premium to access those 5G networks when they come online. Without major increases in 4G LTE investment, carrier price increases are just squeezing the last drop of juice from a network that’s about to be overhauled.
The biggest factor in those increased prices has been a cooling-off of the price war between T-Mobile and Sprint. In related news, T-Mobile and Sprint have announced plans to merge, something that critics have said is going to increase wireless prices going forward, which T-Mobile and Sprint have stridently denied. This could be a giant coincidence, but really, it’s a live demonstration of what analysts have been saying all along: Removing the competition between T-Mobile and Sprint reduces price pressure across the entire industry, which will slowly allow prices to creep up across the board.
Cops can locate anyone’s cell phone in real time without a warrant, all thanks to a privacy backdoor
Pervasive government surveillance might be virtually expected by this point, but in theory, there’s a robust legal system to deal with cops surveilling citizens. Law enforcement agencies are supposed to get a warrant and serve that to cellphone companies, who then provide the data.
But according to a New York Times report, a company that primarily deals with prison phone systems has leveraged a data-sharing service offered by phone carriers to allow cops to track any cellphone number, with no legal checks in place to stop it being abused.
According to the report, a former sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri, used a service called Securus to surveil targets’ cell phones, including a judge and other police officers. Securus used a data system that cell phone companies typically offer to marketers who want to micro-target consumers based on data, including their location. But in this case, Securus tapped into the system and offers its subscribers virtually uncontrolled access to nationwide location tracking.
The NYT claims that Securus, primarily known for its prison phone services, offers location tracking to its law enforcement and prison clients as an additional service. The company cited examples like helping a drug rehab center find a patient who left as a reason for having the system. However, it doesn’t vet requests to ensure that a warrant or other legal instrument has been issued for the tracking; instead, it makes the user tick a box saying that their tracking is all above-board.
“Securus is neither a judge nor a district attorney, and the responsibility of ensuring the legal adequacy of supporting documentation lies with our law enforcement customers and their counsel,” a Securus spokesman said in a statement to the NYT. “Securus offers services only to law enforcement and corrections facilities, and not all officials at a given location have access to the system,” the spokesman told the newspaper.
Senator Ron Wyden has already sent letters to the FCC and telecoms companies requesting details about the program, according to Motherboard.
“I am writing to insist that AT&T take proactive steps to prevent the unrestricted disclosure and potential abuse of private customer data, including real-time location information, by at least one other company to the government,” the letter to AT&T reads.
This morning, American media got all frenzied about a new rule imposed by the Canadian government. Starting December 1st, all cellphones bought from a cell carrier in Canada have to come unlocked out of the box, and the carriers can’t charge a fee for the service.
This is a great and much-needed thing for Canadian consumers. But Americans don’t really need to worry about losing the “land of the free” competition any time soon: although you might still have to pay a fee to unlock phones in America, at least the networks don’t massively suck.
Just like in the US, Canada is dominated by a couple large wireless providers. There’s Bell, Rogers, and Telus that cover all of Canada, and a handful of smaller companies that only have a network in one region or province.
But unlike the States, where the different cell networks offer a different kind of service for a different amount of money (Verizon good but expensive, Sprint cheap and bad), all the big carriers in Canada offer suspiciously identical service for a suspiciously identical price.
There’s no unlimited plans, no cheap prepaid plans, and certainly no “all taxes and fees included” plans. Instead, Canadian cell carriers provide good (but hilariously expensive!) service on long contracts.
This isn’t just a bitter expat ranting at the clouds: a study by the CRTC, the same Canadian government body that just banned locking phones, found that Canada’s cellphone bills are the highest of any developed Western country. To give you an idea, a two-year 5GB/month plan on Rogers with no device payments runs about US$110/month.
In fact, the Canadian cell plans look a lot like America’s did 10 years ago. The business is still centered around buying phones on two-year contracts that are difficult and expensive to break.
Worst of all, there’s basically no discount for bringing your own phone to a network. Buying an iPhone at the Apple Store and then buying a SIM card only saves you $5-10 a month on your cell plan, compared to just buying a cell plan that includes paying for an iPhone.
What that actually means is that Canada’s shiny new cellphone unlocking service isn’t going to help anything. As long as it’s cheaper to buy a phone on-contract than from a store, people are going to remain tied into stupidly long and expensive contracts. The lack of mobility to change carriers is what really hurts competition, as people just stay on the same carrier rather than hunting around for deals every year.
Americans know all of this, because it’s what the American cell industry looked like a few years ago. It’s only since service contracts and on-contract phones started to die off that competition became fierce, and we started seeing prices fall and unlimited contracts return.
So yes, the Canadian government has done a good thing and made sure that all phones will be unlocked for free. But really, the only people that’s going to help are the snowbirds who flee Montreal for Florida every winter and want to buy a T-Mobile SIM while they’re down. For everyone else, it would be more helpful if the government could address the underlying lack of competition, rather than rearranging the deck chairs while everyone keeps paying $140 a month for cell service.
The same weakness could be used to eavesdrop on calls and track users’ locations.