Photo By: Annie Spratt from Unsplash

Last week, a man who was hiking in the mountains of Colorado found himself lost for nearly 24 hours. 

He had set out at 9 a.m. on Oct. 18 and when he didn’t return by 8 p.m. on the same day, he was considered lost. Authorities and attempted rescuers tried to reach him on his cell phone, but it was unsuccessful. The next morning, they were notified that he had safely returned to where he was staying after more attempts to reach him via cellphone were unsuccessful. 

The reason rescuers couldn’t reach him was not because he’d lost his phone; it hadn’t been broken and the hiker had been seriously hurt in any way. Rather, the hiker simply wasn’t answering his phone because it was an unknown number

In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story; we can all relate to the common practice of sending nearly every phone call to voicemail. It did get me thinking though, when’s the last time I answered an unknown number? I genuinely couldn’t remember. 

Canadians received billions of spam calls in 2019. We all know the type; most are just annoying nonsense or someone trying to sell you something. However, there is a large portion of robocalls that are more devious than that. 

In 2020, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre received nearly double the amount of reports tied to telephone solicitations than it had in 2019. Most of these scam calls aim to prey on the emotions and fears of people in order to steal their money.

Common tactics going around right now include automated messages telling people that their Social Insurance Numbers have been compromised and then prompting them to “protect” their bank accounts by depositing their money into accounts that the scammers will then drain. Other calls target seniors in specific. Scammers will pretend to be an authority figure and then inform someone that their grandchild is in trouble. They will request things like gift cards, cryptocurrency or wire transfer money directly to the scammers to get their grandchild home safely.

Most people around my age, though, don’t even get that far into the phone call. We hear a weirdly aggressive automated voice telling us something about our Social Insurance Number, roll our eyes, and then hang up. That is, if we even answered the call in the first place. 

We all know that scam callers use aggressive and emotionally manipulative tactics to convince (often vulnerable) people to fork over their hard-earned money. We’ve all heard people telling us to check in on our parents and grandparents to make sure they’re not falling victim to these kinds of scams. What I’ve heard less of though, is how we got to this point in the first place, where phones are basically unusable because of spam and scam calling. 

I’ve ignored calls from family members, doctor’s offices and even Brock because I didn’t have the number saved in my contacts. The fact of the matter is, if I’m not expecting a call and a familiar name doesn’t pop up on my screen when my phone rings, I’m not going to answer it. That wouldn’t be the case if phone scammers hadn’t been allowed to flourish. 

In Canada, there are ways to stop telemarketers from calling you. It’s relatively simple to register with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commision (CRTC)’s National Do Not Call List (DNCL). Being on the DNCL means that most legitimate telemarketers (i.e. those trying to sell you a genuine service, albeit in the most annoying way possible) will know that if they call you unsolicited, they could face fines. 

The problem with that though, is that telemarketers and scam callers are two entirely different beasts. Scammers aren’t going to check the DNCL before they try to commit a crime. They’re already committing fraud, CRTC fines aren’t exactly at the top of their list of worries. 

The CRTC has also directed phone companies to offer solutions to block “nuisance calls” within their network to protect Canadians from the most obvious of scam calls. They directed them to do this back in 2016, and the problem still hasn’t gone away. 

The real issue is that spam and scam callers adapt quickly and those who are supposed to deal with them are often slow to react. When they realized that people weren’t answering 1-800 numbers, they started using local area codes. When they realized that people could easily Google their local police station and realize that they were not in fact about to be arrested, they started using software that allowed them to mirror existing phone numbers to make it appear that they were calling from where they said they were. It seems unlikely that they’ll ever be stopped.

It might sound dramatic, but these kinds of calls and the lack of action from the CRTC and other governing bodies have genuinely ruined the whole purpose of the telephone. Whether it’s something as serious as people having thousands of dollars stolen from them or something as silly as someone preferring to sleep in the woods rather than face an unknown number, it’s a genuine problem.