March 17, 2023

The psychology behind how robocalls work

The psychology behind how robocalls work

We all know that scammers are sophisticated in using their methods to steal from innocent people. Most of us also think, "I'd never fall for that." Yet, many still go on to lose money to unwanted robocall scams.

Scammers might not be aware of it, but they are psychological professionals, often using our own thinking processes against us. These calls keep getting more and more targeted and sophisticated, and scammers continue developing their abilities to control their victims.

We’re all bombarded daily by scams in our emails, text messages, and through our phones. The number of robocalls only grows year after year. They take a psychological toll, even on those people who don't answer them.

When answered, these calls cost individuals tens of billions of dollars each year, and victims often experience significant hardship as a result. So, why do people so frequently fall prey to these calls? Here is the psychology behind robocalls.

Who are the robocallers?

Have you ever wondered who is on the other end of those pesky robocalls? The robocalling industry is a lucrative business that attracts a diverse range of players, from legitimate businesses to shady scammers. Some of the world's largest and most well-known companies use robocalling technology for customer service and telemarketing. Political campaigns and non-profit organizations are also frontrunners when it comes to using robocalls to support their causes. All these types of robocalls are subject to regulatory guidelines and restrictions. Nonetheless, even they can be a nuisance for some people, especially when made outside regular business hours. 

The vast majority of robocalls, however, are made by scammers who are looking to defraud unsuspecting victims. These scammers can be located anywhere in the world and are often difficult to track down due to their use of spoofed caller IDs and other advanced tactics. Therefore, it's crucial to take caution when receiving robocalls and to never give out personal or financial information over the phone.

Who are the robocall targets?

Scammers use publicly available information, such as phone directories and social media, to build profiles of potential targets. They may also purchase lists of phone numbers from data brokers or other sources. These lists can include people who have previously fallen victim to scams, as they are more likely to fall for similar schemes in the future.

One misconception is that seniors fall for scams most often, but the FTC reports that in 2021, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z young adults were 34% more likely to lose money due to fraud than adults aged 60 and over. The median amount lost to fraud by people from ages 18-59 was $500 in 2021.

However, scammers typically defraud older Americans out of more significant amounts of money. The median loss for people 70-79 was $800 and jumped to $1,500 for those 80 and over. The scams that take these considerable amounts of money from seniors over 80 tend to be prizes, sweepstakes, and lottery scams.

Even the most strong-minded of us are susceptible to scams. Robocalls and subsequent conversations with scammers are the product of years of learning and social engineering. Scammers know precisely how to manipulate their targets into responding. If one method isn't working, they immediately shift to another tactic.

Tragically, those who can least afford to lose money are often the ones successfully targeted by scammers. When people struggle, their ability to balance the risk/reward equation shifts to favor higher and higher risks, even with the potential for lower rewards. When times are tough, people are much more likely to think, "How much worse can things get?" or "I can't afford to miss this opportunity."

The estimated losses from spam calls in 2022 was $65 billion, and the losses keep coming. Don’t be surprised if those numbers increase in 2023.

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How robocalls work

Robocalls use automated dialing systems to call telephone numbers and deliver pre-recorded messages. This system is designed to be as efficient as possible, using software to make large numbers of calls in a short amount of time.

The process starts with the robocaller compiling a list of phone numbers to call, often using public records or purchased lists. The automated dialer then starts dialing each number on the list. If the call goes unanswered, the system will hang up and move on to the next number. If someone answers, the system will play a pre-recorded message. Some robocalls are also made by live operators who follow a script.

The detailed technical aspect of robocalls is more complicated, and there are several different ways automated dialing systems can operate. Some systems use a technology called "predictive dialing" to maximize efficiency. Predictive dialers use algorithms to predict when a call will be answered and adjust the rate of calls accordingly. This means that the system can make more calls per hour, as it can predict when a call is most likely to be answered. Other systems use "power dialing," which dials multiple numbers at once and connects the first answered call to a live operator. Another common method is "voice broadcasting," which simultaneously sends pre-recorded messages to multiple phone numbers.

Many robocallers also use caller ID spoofing to hide their true identity and location. This method uses software to manipulate the caller ID information displayed on the recipient's phone, making it appear that the call is coming from a different number or location. This tactic makes it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to track down and prosecute robocallers.

Overall, robocalling technology continues to evolve, making it an ongoing challenge for consumers, regulators, and law enforcement agencies to combat this persistent and annoying problem.

Anatomy of a robocall

At the most basic level, a robocall is a pre-recorded voice message delivered through an automated phone dialing system. The system is programmed to call a large number of phone numbers in a short amount of time, typically using random or sequential number generators. Once a call is connected, a pre-recorded message plays, often designed to sound like a real person. Some robocalls also transfer the call to a live telemarketer or scammer once the victim answers.

Robocallers use various technologies to make their calls appear legitimate, such as spoofing their caller ID to show a local number, a business name, or even a government agency. This way, they try to gain the recipient's trust and encourage them to answer the call. In some cases, the robocaller will use a "neighbor spoofing" technique, using the same area code and exchange as the recipient's number to make it appear even more legitimate.

More sophisticated scammers use the knowledge of how easily we respond to simple requests as part of a progression of events designed to cheat you eventually. A robocall can easily trick you into saying "yes" by asking, "Can you hear me?" In that case, they record this simple response with the potential to commit identity theft or gain access to sensitive accounts.

Robocalls and the psychology of fear

Robocalls often capitalize on our psychology. Here’s how.

Robocalls use a variety of psychological tactics to manipulate their victims. Scammers are experts in using our own thinking processes against us. Even when the call is identified as suspicious, using a local number still gives the scammer a leg up since it looks like the call originates nearby. Victims are much more likely to answer the call when it could be from the school, doctor's office, or local contact. These calls or texts, known as neighbor spoofing, are especially effective when they present themselves as a call from a local organization like your bank or credit union.

In addition, scammers use familiar names and trusted organizations to increase their credibility and authority. Using the names of local businesses, along with local area codes, gives the scammers even more power. Suppose your bank calls saying you've won a promotion or your credit card payment is overdue. In that case, the likelihood you'll respond is far greater than if the robocall makes general claims.

Using time-sensitive prompts is another tactic to make potential victims act without thinking. In certain aspects, scammers work like a salesperson, knowing that the likelihood of completing their sale depends on how quickly they can get the other person to respond. Their claims will always state that action has to be taken immediately. 

You might have heard from a friend or a social media post about scam calls where a voice with a distinctly foreign accent claims to be calling from the IRS and stating that back taxes are owed. The sheriff is right outside the door. $2,000 must be paid right now, or you sacrifice your freedom. On its face, these calls may be amusing. Sheriffs don't come for those that owe the IRS; nobody will stop an imminent arrest by paying money over the phone, and it clearly doesn't sound like the IRS is calling. Yet, people fall for them.

Creating illusions of scarcity is another tactic that robocall scammers use. If something is only available in limited amounts, we attach more value to it. Creating scarcity might include a statement like, "Only five people are receiving this offer." Making an offer exclusive and limited makes targets feel like they are unique, and they respond quickly out of fear of missing out.

Scammers also take advantage of complex systems. Government programs are an excellent example since many of us aren't sure how benefits programs may work or what we're entitled to as part of the program. One can easily exploit our lack of knowledge to claim we might be missing out on something or not taking advantage of a benefit.

Medicare benefits are an effective tool used by scammers to exploit seniors and gain access to their personal information. For them, it might be as simple as claiming the victim is entitled to a Medicare-paid DNA test to expose if cancer runs in the family. All that is needed is the victim's social security or Medicare number to take advantage of a benefit that doesn't exist. The complicated and hard-to-understand nature of healthcare has made seniors attractive targets for such calls, with 45% having received a healthcare-related scam call

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Sometimes, people feel obligated to give back when someone does something for them. Scammers exploit this when they create a sense of "forced indebtedness" to trick their targets into making bad decisions. For instance, they might offer an exclusive investment opportunity and make the target feel like they're doing them a favor, causing the victim to want to repay it. 

Scammers also know that when someone is friendly to us, we're more likely to trust them and agree to their requests. So, they might say flattering things or try to find something in common with their target to endear them to increase the chances of the person making a poor decision. 

Even if the target decides against participating in the scam, the scammer might resort to making them feel guilty with statements like "Why don't you trust me?" or "I have really tried to help you, and now you don't want to work with me?" to manipulate them into continuing the conversation or responding against their best interests.

How getting robocalls affects your brain

While most people may think of the annoyance and inconvenience of dealing with spam calls and robocalls, these calls have a significant psychological impact on our mental health. They can cause stress, anxiety, and even depression. According to Melanie Shapiro, a certified psychotherapist, the constant interruption and disruption can trigger the body's natural stress response, leading to increased cortisol and adrenaline levels. Especially for those who are already struggling with negative feelings such as loneliness, anxiety, or depression, spam calls can cause even greater distress. These calls trigger the central nervous system, sending out panic signals.

Harvard University also published an essay stating that the brain's reaction to stimuli from smartphones is similar to the reaction to playing slot machines at a casino. Every time we reach for our ringing phones, we know there's a chance it could be a positive notification, like a call from a friend. This thought increases the positive reward hormone dopamine. However, with spam calls, the notification is negative, leading to decreased dopamine activity that can discourage us from engaging with our phones. What happens next is that, over time, we feel distressed and become hyper-vigilant when answering unknown calls. 

Are robocalls illegal?

Robocalls are not inherently illegal. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates robocalls and has strict rules about how companies, businesses, political campaigns, or non-profit organizations can use them. The current version of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) requires companies to obtain the recipient's prior express written consent before making telemarketing calls using an autodialer or pre-recorded voice message. The TCPA also restricts the hours during which telemarketers can call and requires them to identify themselves and provide contact information. Telemarketers must also maintain company-specific do-not-call lists. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for enforcing the TCPA and can impose fines and other penalties on violators. Violations of the TCPA can result in the recipient suing for damages for each violation. 

However, since scam artists don't follow federal legislation, they are not deterred by the TCPA. But despite the TCPA's limitations, it is a valuable piece of legislation. Individuals can take additional steps to limit robocalls, including revoking consent, opting out of calls, and adding themselves to the National Do Not Call list. Third-party mobile apps like Robokiller can also help prevent scammers from reaching individuals' phones.

How to handle robocalls

Despite the best efforts of federal regulators and state officials, robocalls continue to grow in volume. The federal government has yet to find a way to stop scam calls originating overseas.

Until now, the best defense is the use of a robocall blocker.

Robokiller stops the warranty calls, prize scams, and fake IRS threats that exploit our human nature. The app stops scammers in their tracks. Robokiller also wastes the scammers' time with hilarious automatic responses designed to keep them on the line and not call other potential victims. It is oh-so-sweet revenge against scammers.

We're all susceptible to scams no matter how much we think we can avoid them. Years of social engineering have given them a leg up, but Robokiller gives you back control. With 99% effective spam call identification and blocking, Robokiller has blocked 1 billion calls, prevented $600 million in losses, and processed over 3 billion calls.

Stay safe from robocalls by downloading Robokiller for iOS or Android today.

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