In Part One of this article Randy Stegner, our Operations Manager, described a scenario wherein someone using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is making harassing phone calls to commit fraud. In part two of this article he expands on how CallerID works through VoIP as well as suggest steps that can be taken if you are a victim of harassing calls. It’s true that harassing calls can take various forms and what one person considers harassment, another may ignore and move on. Payday loan scams are just one example and this type of activity is illegal. Another example might be someone calling you claiming your car warranty has expired but you have never owned said warranty. Harassing calls could be defined as picking up the line and no one is on the other end; this is known as a “dead air” call.
Oftentimes people make the mistake of believing if they are on a “Do Not Call” (DNC) list they should never receive this type of call. Do Not Calls lists were created so that people do not receive unwanted solicitation calls. A person using nefarious means to obtain personal information certainly lacks the virtue to abide by a Do Not Call list. Just like reputable VoIP companies are unjustly assumed guilty by association because VoIP service is bought and resold, reputable companies conducting legitimate business abiding by DNC lists are often looked upon negatively. Reputable companies make every effort to honor DNC lists and accompanying rules. You should take the time to educate yourself on these rules as some of them may surprise you. Remember that an unwanted call is not equivalent to a harassing call.
So why are harassing calls so difficult to stop? The answer is simple: VoIP technology provides layers with which to hide behind. VoIP itself is not the problem, no more than an ATM is responsible for identity theft; people always find methods to exploit technology for dishonest gain. Traditional telephone service referred to as Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), or “copper line” handles CallerID differently than VoIP. With PSTN, both inbound and outbound calling is done on one line. When you buy PSTN services from a telephone company, that company sets the CallerID for the line and matches the number used for inbound calling to that destination. If suspected criminal activity is being perpetrated from that number, it is more easily traceable since it can only be altered by the phone company.
The advent of VoIP changed this as it affords the ability to have different providers for inbound and outbound calling and also makes it possible to alter the CallerID for every call. Indeed, a VoIP telephone system (known as a PBX) gives one the ability to send the VoIP provider used to connect the call any number he or she wants. Most VoIP providers will pass along what they receive although some may alter this to ensure a valid number is received at the far end. Many unexperienced VoIP users will send the extension number of the phone making the call rather than the number used for inbound as it should be. Unlike PSTN, VoIP makes it possible to do only inbound calling or only outbound calling. This means a person can use one VoIP provider for inbound calling and one for outbound calling. Typically, the person running the scam or making harassing calls purchases a number from Company A and sets their CallerID to that number. They then purchase the outbound service from Company B and send outbound calls through them.
When someone receives a call from this person and attempts to look up who is calling as described in Part One of this article, they are tracking down the company providing inbound service to the number. Since the outbound portion is being done through a separate company the owner or reseller of the number has very little control over stopping the harassment. Couple this with the fact that the scammer need not configure or even purchase the inbound service but can set their PBX to send any CallerID and it becomes clear why this activity is difficult to stop. The million dollar question then becomes: “What can I do if I am receiving these calls?”
The best thing and what will have the most lasting effect is to contact the local authorities and open a case. If the activity being perpetrated is illegal (such as a payday loan scam), they are obligated to take action. The local authorities will investigate to track down and prosecute as necessary. They will typically issue subpoenas to the necessary parties including the resellers in the chain. Those resellers are then bound to turn over any information related to the number in question. This includes names and addresses on file for the party responsible for the number’s activity during the set time period. By taking this route, the local authorities are able to stop the activity through the justice system rather than mitigate it through fines and so forth, by lodging a complaint with the company responsible for service to the number. Admittedly, this can be a slow process.
If the calls being made are not illegal but harassing in nature, the best course of action is to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They accept both informal (free to file) and formal complaints (currently $200 to file). More information can be found on the FCC website: http://www.fcc.gov/complaints, http://www.fcc.gov/guides/filing-informal-complaint. It is important that you have all your facts in order; if you decide at the beginning of receiving harassing calls that you are going to take action, ensure you document accurately. Write down the date and time of the call(s), the call to/call from numbers, and a brief description of what occurred on the call(s). Do this every time you receive these calls so it will be easier for local law enforcement or the FCC to take the appropriate action.
Few would argue that receiving harassing phone calls is only a minor annoyance. Most people do not want to tolerate such activity and want the means to make it stop. Unfortunately, VoIP technology has made it more difficult to track down. You are not without recourse however as you can involve local law enforcement or file a complaint with the FCC. It is helpful to know that reputable VoIP service companies and VoIP resellers are not the source of the problem. If you happen to contact the VoIP company responsible for service to the number in question, go easy on them as they do not like the activity any more that you do. It is unlikely that you will track down the responsible party on your own so you may never get the personal satisfaction of giving the guilty party the scathing rebuke he or she deserves; at least you can take pride in the fact that you have done your part to help resolve the problem for others.