One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this. My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon. And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.
What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:
Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline.
I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:
What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website.
As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.
That’s almost a 90% drop.
Is this just a happy coincidence?
At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.
If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.
Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).
But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.
As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.
The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.
In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds.
[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.]
As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:
I don’t think that this is a coincidence.
I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running.
We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.