Episode 18: Call Me Maybe

In the eighteenth episode of The Latest, we answer robocalls in the order they are received. Family and marriage therapist Erica Steenbergen joins the program for this week’s O.J. Simpson Twitter Update.

The Latest with Greg Ott
The Latest with Greg Ott
Episode 18: Call Me Maybe


Those voices are discussing robocalls, the automated spam messages that combine the joy of telemarketing with the thrill of sending someone to voicemail.

With more than 180 million calls placed daily, robocalls are among America’s most prevalent form of lawbreaking, narrowly beating out jaywalking, not washing your hands after using the toilet, and bursting into applause when the pilot lands the plane.

Today, half of all phone calls are automated scams — the other half amounting to manual scams, where you’re tricked into having a conversation when a text would have done just fine. 

The major robocall breakthrough came from “neighborhood spoofing,” which makes a call seems as if it’s coming from the your phone number’s area code. If you had hoes in different area codes, perhaps you’d be harder to deceive. 

The same tech that powers Skype makes it possible for scammers to place millions of calls a day for just $0.006 per minute, an absolute bargain considering 1-800-Collect charges $2.99 for the first five. 

Here are a few robocalls I received this week:

You should have received something in the mail about your car’s warrantee.


Hey Greg, if you and Kristi get this, give me a call.

As you can tell, they’re quite sophisticated. Especially that last one. It’s no wonder Robocalls are used to carry out a variety of scams and tricks, like fraud, identity theft, or trying to figure out if I’m coming home for Christmas.  

Avoiding robocalls has become quite the chore — adding your number to the Do Not Call registry is moderately effective for avoiding traditional telemarketing, but it’s useless for escaping fraudulent robocalls. It’s the same problem as having a Do Not Murder list — it’s only effective if Oscar Pistorius chooses to consult it.

Cell phone carriers and phone manufacturers are beginning to provide built-in call screening technology, going as far as to provide the option to block all incoming calls from coming through, effectively reducing your iPhone into a lonely vowel.

One huge reason why robocalls have taken off is because of the sheer amount of user data companies are sucking down like lemon LaCroixes at a dry office party. The terms of service agreements and privacy policies you ignore whenever you download a new app make it possible for companies with loose data policies to sell your information to third parties. And whether it’s a 5 a.m. dive bar or Jill Stein, no good has ever come from a third party. 

Your phone number might seem like a small thing, but as companies like Facebook continue to misuse and mismanage personal data, all these erosions of privacy will keep making our lives just a little bit worse.

Your phone won’t stop ringing; you get notifications when you pass by certain locations; those ads where they put your last name in a weird sentence on a hat will keep showing up. “It’s a Jones thing; you wouldn’t understand.” No, we do. 

On December 4, the House passed an anti-robocall measure that’s on the way to the Senate and expected to be signed into law by the end of the year. 

Now, obviously, this is not the most pressing issue of our time. But at least it demonstrates an issue that has a modicum of bipartisan support, unlike the impeachment inquiry, where both sides can’t even agree that it’s not bipartisan. 

Because even though muting a phone call is easy; muting the nation’s pre-eminent white supremacist is a little more difficult.