Endless telemarketing calls, scams and how the big telcos could stop them

Robocalls from illegal telemarketing operations are more than just annoying, they're often scams that bilk Canadians out of tens of millions of dollars every year. Consumer advocates say phone companies could use "spam filters for the phone" to prevent these calls from getting through.

'Spam filters' for phones exist, so why aren't big telcos using them to stop those annoying calls?

Ending robocalls

8 years ago
Duration 1:42
Featured VideoAaron Saltzman explores the simple ways telcos could block annoying and illegal telemarketing calls

"If robocalls were a disease, this would be an epidemic," said one consumer advocate recently.

In fact, this would be the plague. And we're all suffering from it. 

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without a call offering a prize from WestJet, or a free room from Marriott hotels, or a threat claiming you haven't paid your taxes and could go to jail.

They're all fake, of course. And they're all supremely annoying.  

Most of these calls originate overseas, many in boiler rooms in India, and they are surprisingly effective.

We're suckers

According to Statistics Canada, mass marketing fraud bilked unsuspecting Canadians out of nearly $75 million in 2014.

Unofficially, because many people are too embarrassed to report they've been taken, anti-fraud experts suggest that figure could be as much as 10 to 20 times higher.

It's mainly been up to consumers themselves to try to stop this onslaught. But blocking individual numbers doesn't work — the bad guys just use new ones.

And besides, shouldn't there be a way to stop these calls before they get through?

After all, we don't have to add individual email addresses to block spam from getting to our inbox. The email program does that automatically.

Why can't the phone company do the same with unwanted robocalls?

A Canadian solution gets noticed

"There are several existing technologies available," says Maureen Mahoney, a public policy fellow with Consumers Union, based in San Francisco.
Blocking unwanted calls can be easy, so why do we still keep getting them? (iStock)

"They automatically screen and filter robocalls before they reach the consumer, so the responsibility is not placed on the consumer just to block calls one by one," says Mahoney.

What are these wondrous tools and how do you get your hands on one?

A Canadian telco called Primus has something called Telemarketing Guard.  

"We've intercepted and treated over 80 million calls," says Brad Fisher, senior vice-president of marketing and product for Primus.

How it works

Telemarketing Guard works just like a spam filter for your phone.  

It uses an algorithm to automatically identify suspicious callers and flag them for interception. Calling parties have to identify themselves before calls are passed through.  

The customer is then given the options to accept the call, send it directly to voice mail, or block it.  

If the callers don't identify themselves, the phone never rings. If the system notices a number of people blocking calls from a particular number, that call will not be put through.

"It crowd-sources information from the customer base. So if a particular caller is being flagged as unwanted by a number of customers in the base, that information feeds the algorithm so the algorithm will treat that call on behalf of all the customers and allow it to be screened," says Fisher.  

Primus's system is included in the basic price of its service plans. And it works on both voice-over-internet protocol phones and regular land lines.

This is not new technology.  

Primus patented Telemarketing Guard technology in 2006 and the company has been offering it for the past nine years.

And it's not the only system available.

'Honeypot' traps spam calls

Nomorobo, a device that can be installed on VoIP phones, also uses an algorithm to identify suspicious callers.

If a number dials 5,000 outgoing calls per hour, for instance, it's not a human. Which means Nomorobo's program can filter out those numbers.

Nomorobo also uses a type of program known as a "honeypot."  

Honeypot software designates a group of phone numbers — with Nomorobo, these are numbers that have been abandoned — and then collects information about all the calls that are being placed to these numbers. Legitimate callers are not likely to be calling abandoned numbers, so these callers are added to a blacklist.

Consumers Union says honeypot software could easily be used by telcos and the information on the blacklists shared among them, which would allow them to mark unwanted callers in real time.  

So why aren't the big telcos using these types of programs?

"Phone companies have long avoided taking responsibility for the robocall problem," says Mahoney.

The American experience

For years, she says, phone companies in the U.S. claimed they had a legal mandate to connect all calls placed in their system. However, the Federal Communication Commission in the U.S. ruled that phone companies there are allowed to offer tools that would screen unwanted calls.

In Canada, the CRTC is beginning a consultation process asking people to submit their views on unwanted and illegitimate calls.

The CRTC has also asked phone companies and carriers to provide information on options and features currently available to help Canadians protect themselves from unsolicited and illegitimate calls.

Many cite features that allow customers to block individual calls, from a limited list of callers.  

Bell's solution

Bell, for instance, has something called Call Privacy. It intercepts calls coming from a "private" or "unknown" number, and it lets you maintain a list of up to 10 blocked numbers.  

But illegal telemarketers aren't often using private numbers any more. They're also spoofing hundreds, if not thousands of numbers, which renders a list of 10 largely ineffective. On top of that, Bell customers who want Call Privacy have to pay a fee of $8.95 per month.   

And features like Call Privacy don't address the main complaint of the Consumers Union, which is that the onus is still on the consumer to deal with the unwanted and illegal calls.

CBC emailed Bell, along with Telus and Rogers, asking why the companies are not making use of the technology cited in the Consumers Union report.  

They're working on it

"Unwanted robocalls are often a result of spoofing — when a spammer manipulates the caller ID to make it look like a call or text came from a local phone. More often than not, the calls originate from outside of Canada, making it especially challenging to address," says Jennifer Kett, director of media relations with Rogers, in an email to CBC.

"This is something we take very seriously. We're working with other carriers and the CRTC to investigate what we can do as an industry to combat unwanted calls and texts," says Kett.

"Robocalls originating offshore often use fake local numbers for fraudulent telemarketing, also called 'spoofing,'" says Bell's Jason Laszlo. "It's a global problem, and Bell is engaged in several industry initiatives focused on solutions."

Here's the thing: Even if Bell or Telus or Rogers don't have the technology or don't want to spend the money to develop their own program, they don't have to.

Primus says it's willing to share.  

"It's something that Primus would be willing to work with the right partner on an expanded availability in the Canadian marketplace," says Primus's Brad Fisher.

The question is, are the big telcos interested in taking him up on his offer?


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.