Phone Spam – From India Coffeeshops

Telemarketers are bypassing the Do NOT CALL list – legally, and there is little we can do about it. Here’s how they are doing it, and I hope there is a way to stop it…

My phone rings several times a day everyday with “phone spam”, dog gone it, even though I am on the DO NOT CALL list. Some of these latest calls are a new kind of telemarketer calling me, though – these are Skype calls by cellphone from India to my home phone. When most of these calls ring my phone, the Caller ID shows a local number. I see a different number each time. The Caller ID frequently shows: 1 (972) 0 followed by six more digits and UNKNOWN CALLER. If I answer the call, about half the time, there is no one on the other end, and the line drops after a few seconds. When there is someone on the other end, they explain that they are representing local companies to (fill in the blank) repair my roof, fix my plumbing, add new outlets and light fixtures, etc. If I call the number back from the Caller ID record, a recording usually informs me that the number is not in service for the majority.

One time, I engaged the person on the other end in an interesting conversation. The caller was in India in a tea house doing telemarketing before his normal job started – they use a cellphone to call every number on a weekly e-mail from “the boss” through a Skype gateway. The bosses e-mail goes to more than a hundred addressees. If someone answers and the call duration is more than a minute, the employer pays him a fee based upon the detail in his monthly phone bill. If he gets a “lead” with a name and address for the phone number, he gets a bigger fee. He sends the lead information by e-mail to someone else who has an account with a US Internet home services company that pays the referrer (the Indian telemarketer) a fee for every referral.  This US Internet home services company represents a number of local businesses near my home such as roofing companies that pay them for every referral.

Pressing even further, the caller explained that his cellphone number (in India) is 972-045-7852 (yup, that’s what my caller ID shows) – you can look this number up on the Internet at http://indiamobilenumber.com, and this particular caller is apparently somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Skype passes the cellphone number as the local caller ID information, and this particular caller explained that they request their cellphone number to start with the same area code in the US that their e-mail assignment refers to. He has another cellphone with a local number that starts 7130, and he calls Houston homeowners from another e-mail assignment. He says that the boss has boxes of cellphones that he passes out whenever there is a new client in a new city.

He confirmed that the recipient of his calls would see a local number on their Caller ID, and they were more likely to answer the call. Yes, that is why I answered the phone the first time… He has an Android robot caller app that reads his e-mail for phone numbers and invokes Skype to dial the numbers. The robot caller app dials the numbers in one after another until one number answers; his local Skype gateway drops all ringing calls in progress, of which there may be several, as soon as a number is answered.

Just an aside, Indian cellphone numbers are all ten digit numbers that start with 7, 8 or 9. So, that leaves a lot of cities they can call in the US that will reflect local numbers! And another aside, there are no exchanges that start with a 0 or 1 in the US, and an initial 0 or 1 initiate an operator service or a long distance call. And a final aside, the Do Not Call list we are on, now, doesn’t apply to the Indian caller – FTC and FCC oversight of this problem simply does not exist for the Indian telemarketer.

So, AT&T Uverse and I have been working to find a way to block these incoming calls, and time will tell if the strategy I employed was actually put in place successfully. Some years ago – many, in fact, I helped to define the generic requirements for a VoIP call blocking feature (for AT&T, coincidently), so I understand exactly what they can potentially do for me. Their rollout of call blocking allows a residential customer to only block up to 20 numbers – far too limiting for this new nuisance.

AT&T’s rollout of call blocking for commercial customers is quite different – the intended extension of this feature for a business customer allows for a longer list of blocked callers, but it also allows the business to block all toll-free numbers. The “behind the scenes” feature is simply completing a list and using wild cards for all digits that follow 800, 866, 877 and 888. When Tech Support completes the call blocking request on behalf of a commercial customer, they simply fill in a form – a different form from what the customer would see in their own account management window online, and the tech support staff will simply stop with the toll free 800, 866, 877 and 888 and go no further to finish the number. I asked, “what of you type in one more digit – will the system wildcard the next six digits like it did for seven digits following 800?” “Well, I have never tried it, and no one here knows what  will happen…” “So, try it!” I said to the business account tech support person I eventually managed to get on my side, and they did, and it appeared to work correctly when they received a confirmation of the change back.

So, time will tell whether this strategy is actually allowed by the current AT&T management systems. And all bets are off when the Indian cellphones that this company uses have numbers starting 9722…

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