Early in 2017, an NBC News article wondered, “Will Trump Administration Mean More Robocalls?” Two years later, we have an answer: no fucking shit.
Robocalls have “taken over your phone.” They’re “getting worse,” and we’re “losing the war” against them. Spam calls comprised just 3.7 percent of phone calls in 2017; this year, half of all phone calls may be placed by autodialing systems. At this point, you probably recognize most of the scams that blow up your phone — one recording that lands in my voicemail every day is something about how I qualify for a free medical back brace. Turns out it’s a ploy to steal personal information, including Medicare numbers. I’m not even 35 yet, damn it!
The scourge has been blamed on the rollback of a Federal Communications Commission rule passed under Obama in 2015. Ajit Pai, the chairman of Trump’s far less consumer-friendly (and pro-deregulation) FCC, applauded the federal judges who struck down this apparently effective anti-robocalling rule last March. As the hosts of the podcast Reply All reported a few weeks ago, the court’s issue with the order boiled down to its definition of an autodialer: “equipment which has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator.” This, the judges decided, was broad enough to include consumers’ own smartphones, since these devices can run autodialing apps. So, rather than enforce the regulation in the non-insane way it was clearly intended, we’re doing… nothing much.
And you may have noticed. These spam and “spoof” calls — in which the number is disguised to look like one from your area code — are now bombarding America by the billions. If your carrier is T-Mobile or MetroPCS, you see many of them come up under the phrase “Scam Likely,” which has become the shorthand for this annoyance.
But unlike almost every complaint you hear these days, and despite the opportunity to blame corporate-stooge Republicans, robocall rage remains apolitical. The “Scam Likely” phenomenon is perceived more like unpleasant weather than a failure of governance: It affects everyone, and it hardly occurs to us that something could be done about it. I’m almost shocked that a presidential candidate hasn’t brought this up: Even someone who thinks the Green New Deal is a communist coup might look favorably on a Democrat who promises to go after the assholes ringing you up to say that you’re facing arrest over unpaid taxes. (The real IRS typically communicates by mail, just FYI.)
Even the current FCC realizes how bad the situation looks — and, perhaps, how fed up people are with receiving a dozen robocalls daily. But Pai’s attempts to seem tough on scammers are little more than that: The steps his commission has taken to curb the issue have minimal impact, or carry negative consequences for consumers, or simply pass the buck, as when he demands that telecoms fix everything themselves. Meanwhile, congressional action is as glacial as always. None of it is likely to amount to a noticeable decrease in your spam call intake any time soon; if anything, we’ll continue to descend into total saturation. The only upside is that Trump supporters gave $100,000 to a robocall grifter who pretended to be part of his reelection campaign.
I’ve actually come to believe that “Scam Likely” will be what kills telephone voice communication (and possibly brings down the United States) once and for all. Millennials and Gen Z already overwhelmingly prefer texts to talking; calls went out of style with ringtones, and they currently inspire the same anxiety and dread of an unexpected knock or the sound of the doorbell at home. And an abundance of robocalls obviously target older people who might lack the tech savvy to block them or the presence of mind to suspect a con. Plus, they have landlines to target! The rest of us barely think twice when our smartphones start buzzing and sliding across the table — you decline the call, delete any message and add the number to the infinite shit list.
Perhaps phone functionality will go the way of the iPhone’s headphone jack — removed as a vestige of a bygone era. We’d finish the migration to SMS messaging and social media apps, which, though susceptible to other spam and swindles and dreck, do not usually invade our attention as rudely as that cursed marimba pattern. Increasingly, any sound from our phones is an aberration, a mistake. It is the past calling, hoping we still want to hear from it. Thank god it doesn’t know how to slide into DMs.