So begins another robocall reaching out to me on my military office phone line. Many days go like this, unfortunately. So much so that I have experimented over the years with various tactics in an effort to get these mysterious “callers” to stop.
Recently in a fit of exhausted frustration, I reached out to our network security folks about it.
What I learned is that they actually do a lot to stop robocallers from harassing us. But let’s face it, even an army of network warriors can only do so much to stop a relentless barrage of snake oil salesmen from offering up the latest cure to a captive audience. These scammers have ingenious ways to slip through the lines.
Sometimes it’s a little frightening what they do to get in. And as a government employee who is here to support the troops, I am obligated to pick up the phone each time and offer assistance to the person, or in many cases, the computer sitting on the other end.
One call that seems to easily get through to my line on a regular basis is a number that appears to be from within Fort Knox. It reflects it on my display, in fact.
After I deliver my most gracious, pleasant greeting, I hear what’s become that anticipated, brief pause, followed within a second by a voice — usually female, strangely — informing me that they have something I must have.
Chuck Sherman, from the Fort Knox Network Enterprise Center, said oftentimes there is no actual person on the other end of the line.
“These are what they call autodialers,” said Sherman. “They’re actually computer servers, where they will put in a list of area codes and exchanges in those area codes, and then tell the computer, ‘Dial everything; start at 502-624-0000 and call everything up through 9999.’
“When they do this, they can program these autodialers up to put in a spoofed caller ID.”
The Federal Trade Commission warns against trusting in your caller ID display.
“Scammers can make any name or number show up on your caller ID,” according to an article on the FTC website HERE. “So even if it looks like it’s a government agency like the Social Security Administration calling, or like the call is from a local number, it could be a scammer calling from anywhere in the world.”
Anywhere. In. the. World? Wow, now let that one sink in.
Occasionally the call starts out as a generic greeting, followed by an extended pause. That’s a goldmine to me because I’m about to talk to a real live person.
One time, my hope to reach a real person actually scored pay dirt. It surprised me when a woman suddenly came on the line and spoke to me — albeit in very broken English.
My years of frustration suddenly bubbled up as I proceeded to read her the riot act and inform her that she is never to call me again. As I moved the receiver from my ear and pushed it toward the phone cradle, I heard her apologize. Too late.
Sherman advises against telling folks off, even though it might feel good at the moment (and it does, it feels so good).
“I usually stay on the line until I can hopefully reach a real person,” said Sherman. “Then I tell them, ‘Hey look, you’ve dialed a Department of Defense military installation. Please remove these numbers from your exchange. That’s basically all we can do.”
According to the FTC, don’t press a bunch of buttons, either prompted or unprompted.
“Even if it’s not a scammer calling, if a company is calling you illegally, it’s not a company you want to do business with,” writes the FTC in the same article. “When you get a robocall, don't press any numbers. Instead of letting you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, it might lead to more robocalls.”
Sherman confirms this.
“You might be verifying something that you don’t want to verify,” said Sherman. “You never know what you’re doing when you do that. Just leave it alone.”
I admit that I’ve pressed many a number out of spite in the past, with no desire to actually talk to someone. Sometimes I’ve pressed several numbers at the same time; other times, just one, which I’ve held down until they hang up.
Historically speaking, landlines have been a fertile ground for robocallers ever since shortly after Alexander Graham Bell told Mr. Watson, “Come here; I want you!” on Feb. 14, 1876.
Robocallers thrive in the realm of communications. That’s because they must talk to you in a form which you will listen; otherwise they can’t ply their wares, or spam you, sell you snake oil, steal your ID, or trick you out of your hard-earned money.
Interestingly, the Army has had a plan to rid us all of those legacy phone networks — that’s technology-speak for those clunky landline phones that sit on our desk — and to replace them with Voice over Internet Protocol systems. You know, VoIP? Telephone calls that pass through your computer.
“At first, the legacy systems were starting to go away,” said Brian Gold, technical director, U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command (ISEC) headquarters at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. “From what I can tell throughout the Army, [Program Executive Office] has been trying to draw down those systems because they’re obviously beyond end-of-life and need to be replaced.”
Gold explained a lot of the switching technology can already be replaced with IP-based systems. As a result, the VoIP modernization project was beginning to take over, and desk phones were eventually on their way out — ever. so. slowly.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telework suddenly became a reality for many employees. But along with the mass exodus came a whole set of communication issues.
All those employees scattering to the four winds of their home offices put a halt to the VoIP plans, ushering in a technology ISEC officials say they had been planning to bring online eventually as a conclusion to modernization: Microsoft Teams. Those plans that they had planned to take years to reach fruition suddenly jumped to the here and now.
“I’ve seen the drawdown as far as the landline and the infrastructure to support it,” said Larry Poole, senior systems engineer in ISEC at Fort Detrick, Maryland. He’s been an eyewitness to all the changes for nearly 20 years. “When I came aboard ISEC, we were doing installation, we were doing surveys, and we were planning for new buildings. We were putting copper pairs to every user at a rate of 1 ½ times your building occupancy.”
A decade later, they recognized they didn’t need all that copper in the ground with the availability of VoIP and fiber optics. That doesn’t mean, mind you, copper lines are going away entirely. There are some situations where copper wiring will survive — for a while.
“It’s like turning a big ocean liner,” said Poole; “it takes time.”
Still, technology continues to change before our eyes. The vast majority of Millennials and Generation Z have no idea how to operate a landline phone; especially the rotary dialasaur.
“As the culture changes and we get more used to communicating in the new environment, whether that’s o365 or Teams, or whatever — soft clients, the integrated phone into your laptop — I believe that ship has already sailed, and we will see the landlines go away ...”
… an exception involves emergency situations, such as phones in elevators and along interstates and highways; as well, the need for secure VIP priority and precedence calls.
Army Capt. Patrick Connelly, network systems engineer in ISEC, also at Fort Huachuca, said there are ways to achieve a VoIP solution with existing analog lines, providing military systems an opportunity to catch up to technology.
“It comes down to cost for some of those distant locations people may be going to,” said Connelly.
In such cases, the location has no need for a digital network solution but merely a copper line phone. Those include at firing and training ranges or ammunition control points.
So what does all this have to do with robocallers?
For one, they will continue. Even after we go to all digital. Think of it this way; do you get spammers on your cell phone? Yep. So unfortunately, they’re here to stay.
What can we do about it?
“We can actually put a block on any calls coming in from a toll-free number,” said Sherman. But there’s a kicker: “The block will stay in there until we actually remove it, so if the company goes bankrupt and gives up that toll-free number and the service assigns it to another number, that service will continue to be blocked.”
Should we be concerned?
“No. Other than the fact that they irritate you and make your blood pressure go up, there’s nothing that you should be concerned about,” said Sherman. “It’s just telemarketers trying to get your attention, trying to get you to answer by putting in a local number to where you think it’s somebody you might know —“
Oh, hold on; I got a call coming in. I think it’s my boss …