NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. Cellphones have made our lives easier for sure, but lately, when you pick up the phone, you are likely to hear something like this.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This message is concerning your unsecured credit debt.
KING: These spam calls make up at least a quarter of all phone calls in the United States, but there is hope. The FCC is set to vote today on rules clarifying that phone companies can step in to block these unwanted calls. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has that story.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: By now, this is a familiar drill. The phone rings. It's not a familiar number. Is it important or yet another spam call? The problem of phone spam is so pervasive it's creating related nuisances for people like Dakota Hill. He says he gets 100 junk calls every month and also gets calls from people who think he's spamming them. They call saying...
DAKOTA HILL: Do I know you?
HILL: Why did you wake me up? And that was definitely an angry one.
NOGUCHI: In fact, Hill hadn't placed any of those calls. His number had been spoofed. That is, fraudsters used software to trick the caller ID system to make it appear as though calls were coming from Hill's phone. He explains this over and over to the people calling him, and not every caller is understanding. One woman chastised him.
HILL: She went on and on about how I was letting people use my phone and not controlling them (laughter).
NOGUCHI: There is an irony here. The cellphone has become our everything - our wallet, photo archives, computer and music library. But it's also becoming less useful as a phone. Consumer Reports found 70% of people no longer answer calls they don't recognize. Regulators and industry are combating junk calls but at least so far haven't succeeded. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone companies, had its own spam problem. Patrick Webre heads the agency's consumer bureau.
PATRICK WEBRE: We've seen recently scammers using our number, spoofing our number, to try to convince consumers that they're from the FCC and in some way get money out of them.
NOGUCHI: He says spam calls are the No. 1 consumer complaint and the agency's top priority. The FCC is demanding all U.S. phone carriers install technology to verify calls and flag potential spam. The deadline is the end of this year. Jonathan Nelson is on the front lines of this battle. Nelson is director of product management at Hiya, a Seattle technology startup that's designing ways to block spam. He tracks phone calls across the U.S. on giant computer monitors.
JONATHAN NELSON: You see this huge, vast area of green, which is good, all the good calls. But then there's this little red area that just bounces along, you know. It's the scammers.
NOGUCHI: Nelson says they devise clever, new ways of bilking people - the latest being the one-ring scam, which emerged May 3. That day, Nelson's monitors turned a flurry of red.
NELSON: It was explosion of calls. We'd never seen that level of volume before.
NOGUCHI: In this case, robo callers hang up after one ring, hoping to trick the victim into calling back on an expensive, international toll line, likely to West Africa. Scammers profit by taking a portion of the added fees. Many scams prey on fear of arrest or investigation by a government agency. Targets include immigrants, taxpayers, debtors or retirees. Scams cost Americans an estimated $10 billion a year. Their success, Nelson says, is making people skeptical about answering calls.
NELSON: We're kind of seeing the death of the phone call.
NOGUCHI: Most cellphone carriers recognize they need to step up. Chris Oatway is associate general counsel for Verizon Wireless. He says this year, the company's investing more than ever in technologies to detect, identify and trace junk calls.
CHRIS OATWAY: There is an arms race where they are looking to evolve to get around some of the protections we have in place.
NOGUCHI: I would say that the carriers are not winning that arms race.
OATWAY: I think that's true. The key here is to restore trust in voice calls.
NOGUCHI: Doing so, Oatway says, won't be easy because telephone networks are so interconnected. If another wireless carrier doesn't flag a spam call, Verizon's network might not recognize it's a problem. That's just one way he says spammers might still get through.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.