THE phone calls started for me one day two weeks ago. They had an area code and a name, and when I picked up, I heard: “This is the Social Security Administration. Your Social Security number is being used along the border in southern Texas. Please call …”
And so it began. The calls were repeated over and over, almost every hour for two days. The same mechanical voice, with different area codes and different names. Even when I left home, I found three voice mails to delete when I got back.
The calls continued until about 8 p.m. the first day before trickling to a halt about noon the next day.
They were robocalls — those mechanical messages trying to either sell, convince or trick you into either buying something or giving away some part of your personal ID.
Almost everyone gets them. Nearly 48 billion of them were placed in 2018, up almost 57 percent from 2017, according to tracking by YouMail Inc., which provides call-blocking and call-management services. The company estimates that nearly 27 billion robocalls were classified as scams or telemarketing.
California was second to Texas as the state receiving the most robocalls in 2018, with the 310 area code in L.A. receiving the most robocalls in the state. Los Angeles received 1.6 billion robocalls in 2018, finishing a dubious fourth in the category behind Atlanta, Dallas and New York.
YouMail reported that Americans received a record-smashing 5.7 billion robocalls in October 2019. Health-related scams were the top type of scam reported in October, followed by interest-rate; student loan; and Social Security scams.
I was talking to someone at the Calvary Presbyterian Church before watching the “Messiah’’ last weekend who can attest to how a live scam can prey on a person.
The person, who asked that their name not be used because of the fear of “retribution,’’ was hurrying to get out the door to get to the airport one day in 2017 when a call came in from someone claiming to be the person’s grandson. It was an area code similar to one where the grandson lived. The voice told the person that he was in jail and needed to have $4,500 to get out of jail.
“Don’t tell my parents,’’ the voice said. “I’m so ashamed.’’ The grandson’s voice was changing, so the person figured it must just sound different.
Someone claiming to be an attorney called again and said another $4,500 was needed to get the grandson out of jail. The person complied.
The person went to the airport and brought the relatives home. The phone rang again. This time, the person called police, while one of the relatives told the person on the other end that they were calling the authorities.
But the victim’s money was already gone.
“Now I tell everyone to be careful about such calls,’’ the person said. “I don’t pick up calls anymore.’’
How wise the advice, but how sad the situation. So much for the motto, “A person’s home is his — or her — castle.’’
Many of the people I talked to in the last few days are now letting their phones ring through to answering devices unless they immediately recognize a number or are expecting a call.
Land lines are becoming a thing of the past for many people, for financial reasons, but that hasn’t stopped the robocalls.
“I only use a cell phone, and have gotten more than other years,’’ Holden Sokey said as he sat in front of the South Pasadena Public Library. “Lots of them are in Chinese. I’ve tried to block them, but there are still more. Whoever is calling is trying to disguise them using this area code.’’
Leticia Cheng, who works at the library, also gets several robocalls a week, “usually in languages I don’t understand. I feel like I’m getting more than before, and I try to ignore them.
“I don’t even answer the phone anymore. I look up the number to see if it is something I need to know. Some calls won’t let you cancel them. You never know who it is.’’
Now she’s also getting robo-texts.
“Most people text now,’’ she said. “And I’ve gotten several texts lately, for things like Viagra, or, ‘Looking for a good time tonight?’ ’’
Is there nothing that can rid us of this plague?
There are a lot of resources and ideas for people who want to tackle this problem.
I’m on the National Do Not Call Registry, and it seemed to work well for several years, but the Federal Trade Commission reports that scammers have been able to work around that avenue.
The FTC recommends call blocking systems — technologies or devices that can stop a lot of unwanted calls. Some companies also offer call-blocking systems, which can show categories like “spam’’ or “scam likely’’ on your phone’s display for incoming calls.
The FTC offers consumer information — www.consumer.ftc.gov (look for the section on robocalls). It offers lots of information on how to block unwanted calls. There are separate sections under “How to Block Unwanted Calls.’’
You can also report unwanted calls at ftc-gov/complaint.
AARP also has published several articles on the subject, with a timely list of do’s and don’ts, which I’ve included with this column.
And just when you think you may be catching up with the scammers — just you wait. 2020 is primary and general-election season, when you will be getting robocalls from people campaigning for their favorite candidate.
I can hardly wait. Excuse me. My phone is ringing.
My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.