The Current

Millennials aren't killing the art of the phone call — scammers are, says writer

Phone calls are among the long list of traditions that millennials are sometimes blamed for "killing." But Sarah Hagi believes young people have become wary of answering the phone because of the growing epidemic of scam calls.

CRTC has recently taken new steps to fight fraud calls and phone scams

Toronto writer Sarah Hagi says young people may be wary of answering the phone because of the growing epidemic of fraudulent scam calls. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
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Do you ever hear your phone buzz, see a number you don't recognize, and just decide not to answer it, out of fear it might be a robocall, or a scam call using a fake phone number?

You're not alone, says Toronto writer Sarah Hagi.

"I see, 'Oh, four missed calls from a 416 number.' I could either call those back and see if it's someone who is trying to reach me, or I could just assume they're spam calls, which they usually are," Hagi told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

Phone calls are among the long list of traditions that millennials are sometimes blamed for "killing" (see: breakfast cereal, golf and even divorce).

But Hagi believes that young people have become wary of answering the phone because of the growing epidemic of scam calls.

She recently wrote an article for Vice's Motherboard about the phenomenon. When she put a call out for stories on Twitter, she immediately received nearly 100 messages from people telling her: "Yes, and it's ruining my phone habits," she said.

Hagi said she's become so cynical about the issue that she almost didn't pick up an Amazon package her friends had sent as a gift. She received a text message telling her a package had arrived, but she assumed it was a scam.

"I'm not generally a paranoid person, but now I do feel like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm assuming the worst all the time,'" she said. 

Rising number of scam calls 'astounding': CRTC chair

Scam calls are on the rise in North America.

According to data firm YouCall, more than five billion automated calls were placed in the United States in November 2019. That's an average of 15 calls per person and nearly double the number from November 2017. Of those, 47 per cent were scam calls. 

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's telecom regulator, says that 40 per cent of complaints they receive about unwanted calls are regarding scam calls.

"The numbers are astounding," said CRTC chairperson Ian Scott.

The CRTC says 40 per cent of complaints they receive about unwanted calls are regarding scam calls. (CBC)

The CRTC announced last week it's giving telecom companies until September 2020 to adopt a new technology called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited/Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens), which is intended to help users see if a number is legitimate or not.

"This is, in effect, fighting crime," Scott said. "The vast majority of the spoof calls are certainly people engaged in malicious or criminal activity."

STIR/SHAKEN is meant to combat increasingly sophisticated technology that allows scammers to make it look like they're calling from the phone number of a legitimate organizations, like a local police station, a courthouse, or the Canada Revenue Agency, explained Scott.

"Any sort of advanced teenager with a computer could spoof a call. … It is not difficult to pretend that you're another number," he said. 

Hagi once fell for one of these calls herself, from a number purporting to be a courthouse in Nunavut. 

"I called back [saying], 'Oh my God, did I do something in Nunavut, a place I've never been?'" she recalled. The courthouse told her that she was not in trouble, and that someone was using their number for spoof calls.

The downside to not talking on the phone

Mary Jane Copps argues that regardless of whether texting or fraudsters are to blame, a lot is at risk if people stop speaking on the phone.

"There is so much information in [our] tone of voice that we cannot get through email or through texting," she said.

Copps runs a company called The Phone Lady that teaches people to communicate more effectively on calls — a skill set that she says has been more in-demand since the rise of the smartphone. 

"We've been talking with our thumbs for a long time," she said, leading to people simply not having the same comfort making phone calls that they used to.

The Current's Danielle Carr gets a lesson on how to talk on the phone with Mary Jane Copps, a.k.a. The Phone Lady. 3:26

A 2015 U.K. study found that 25 per cent of Britons did not make phone calls weekly, compared to four per cent just three years earlier.

She said that at particularly during the holiday season, as people are catching up with friends and family, "the real way to find out what's going on in their world is to hear them tell you about it as opposed to reading it on a screen, because then you can find out how they feel and you can ask a question right away to expand the story."

Mary Jane Copps says that regardless of whether texting or fraudsters are to blame, a lot is at risk if people stop speaking on the phone. (mimagephotography/Shutterstock)

On top of that, she said, being rusty on phone skills can hurt people in work situations.

"It's quite common for people, when they have to use the phone for a job search or on the job, that they're uncomfortable," she said.


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Danielle Carr.

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