Using Speech to Combat Robocalls, ANI Spoofing, and Fraud

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On a recent Sunday night, I was winding down with a bottle of beer and a hardcover book when, just out of reach (and purposely so), my cell phone rang. I live in New York, the land of 212s and 917s, and have for half a decade, but the area code on the caller ID matched that of my hometown in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley—818. Though I’d taken deliberate steps to disconnect from technology for the evening, I picked up, somewhat curious to see who was calling me at this hour. After all, the only people who call me from within the 818 area are family members—people whose numbers I stored ages ago.

“Hello,” an automated female voice said. “You’ve been selected for a special promotion courtesy of Marriott Hotels.” No, I thought, hanging up immediately. I hadn’t been selected for anything of the sort. I knew this because I had, more than once, fallen for a similar trick. And, when I’d pressed the necessary buttons as instructed, I was transferred to a live agent, who abruptly hung up on me when I answered a question about my age that disqualified me from the offer.

I’m fairly certain that this most recent call was in no way connected to Marriott. The law only allows these kinds of calls if I’ve had a previous relationship with Marriott and have given the company permission to contact me in this manner. My intuition tells me that a company like Marriott didn’t get where it is without knowing the law.

But perhaps what is most important here is that if Marriott calls me tomorrow with a legitimate offer, I’d hang up immediately because of these past experiences.

Though mine is just one form of disturbance that can come over the telephone, these kinds of cases have been occurring regularly. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gets about 200,000 complaints from U.S. consumers a year over these kinds of bogus calls. Consumers Union, an advocacy group from Consumer Reports, estimates that scam calls, which “circumvent the national “Do Not Call” registry, cost businesses $350 million a year, according to its website.

“Fraudulent calls and spoofs are getting worse, not better, and that will continue,” says Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications industry analyst.

And it’s not just consumers who are suffering. If not tackled with the right strategy, automatic number identification (ANI) spoofing, fraud, and robocalls can do serious damage to call centers and companies. Yet while it is a challenge to combat these threats, there are steps that can be taken to prevent unwanted disasters and security breaches. Speech technologies, most notably interactive voice response (IVR) systems, voice biometrics, and analytics, provide a solid first line of defense for companies that might otherwise fall victim.

Knowing the Motives

You might be asking what fraudsters stand to gain by creating these kinds of problems. Do they simply enjoy going out of their way for the sake of a good prank?

According to the experts, the answer is no. There are plenty of reasons for committing call crimes that go beyond just plain mischief.

A major source of strife is ANI spoofing, says Ian Roncoroni, cofounder and CEO of Next Caller, a supplier of advanced caller ID technologies. With spoofing, hackers manipulate the outgoing caller ID and change the way it appears to the business or person being called. “It’s so simple you can do it with a free app on your smartphone,” he says. It can also be done through complex processes by sophisticated computer systems. And it’s difficult to detect and virtually untraceable, meaning anyone can mask his identity or assume yours.

Another common source of trouble is robodialing—the robotic process of using computers to place automated calls that deliver prerecorded messages. “Most times a consumer receives an automated message, there is a robodialer behind it,” Roncoroni says.

Not all robocalls are categorically illegal; legitimate and honest uses include notifying parents about school closings, reminding patients about prescription refills, or alerting travelers to flight delays.

But the anonymity that spoofing affords, coupled with the efficiency of high-volume outbound, automated calling, makes telephone-based fraud an easy, affordable option for would-be thieves.

Fraudsters can also take over accounts and steal someone’s identity by bypassing IVR authentication to activate credit cards or intercept phone calls, for instance.

Today, people can easily pose as any person or entity they choose, Roncoroni says.

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