Got a spam call and can’t figure out why (and why you)?

Hint: it’s not personal…

It was one of the biggest moments in my 11-year-old’s life: finally, FINALLY, he got his own cell phone number plus infinitely more important, the attached data plan!

However, the pinnacle of it all - the inaugural first call to the new number by me, the one who bankrolled this miracle, was taken away when the carrier’s test call rang the phone. I was merely the second one to call, followed by two more calls that day – the one from my wife and from his sibling’s phone.

The next few weeks, I periodically checked on my son’s call history as any good parent/cybersecurity professional would. Almost no outbound calls – this next generation already lives in a world of Discord apps and such. But there were inbound calls. Calls from all over the place, none of which I recognized. “Yeah, I get spam-called like all the time” was my kid’s reply. “So do you answer them and what are they saying?” “I don’t answer them anymore unless it’s someone I know. It’s all dead air or noises anyway.”

Soon after, my cell phone provider added spam call protection to the features of our family’s plan. Once activated, the spam calls somewhat lessened, though never went away altogether.

Like my son, we all ignore these calls - they are not personal. At least that has to be the assumption or rather the logical conclusion. Clearly, my kid’s brand-new number couldn’t possibly be the target of some nefarious, monstruous scheme just days after it was assigned?

One day I accidentally answered a spam call instead of pushing the ignore button. For no good reason, I actually panicked! I hung up immediately, but then spent another minute in suspense, waiting to see if the call would now ‘haunt me’, make the lights in my house flicker or worse.

It made no sense but maybe I was afraid that I had just given away a little glimpse at my existence? What if the calls were little pin-pricks to build behavior profiles? Not necessary on me personally (see, I told you it’s not personal!) but on my device, the location, did I answer, how long, what time, etc. The very next second that same system might ‘pin-prick’ some other number with some connection to me.

Patterns and relationships matter a lot in cybersecurity. If all pin-pricks were aggregated, combined with the other identifiable ‘fingerprints’ of digital life, what details would be colored in? Would whoever collected all this information just lay in wait, ready to strike at the right opportunity? That’s actually not as crazy as it sounds: in my work, most successful fraud schemes use little bits and pieces of information to make fake identities, devices or impersonations seem genuine.

So where does that leave my family and me (and yes you)? First off, keep in mind that this is not an advice column and my ‘theory’ is nothing but conjecture. But in as far as we are agreed that the calls simply cannot be good, it seems to make sense to never answer them. And block them. Personally, to actively combat them with apps or reporting numbers online is already too much work for me. The numbers are usually fake caller ids anyway. Of course, if I see the same number calling me over and over again, I use the number-blocking on my phone.

Lately, my phone has been helping me out all on its own: one of the more recent software updates now gives me additional information on some calls – like the ones from my contact list which are ‘trusted’ or ‘verified’ or like ones that I have called myself before.

If you can afford it, another prevention method is to switch to a privacy-first phone carrier like the rich and famous use. It cuts down on the ancillary information that surrounds your phone (like cell tower location recording, third party re-processing of text messages and more).

Finally, I found that when the calls are coming in a lot more often, turning my phone completely off and on seems to have an effect where it cuts down on the call volume after the reboot. I like to think it wreaks havoc on my collector. Now perhaps that’s just perception, but if all this still turns out to be some evil mind game being played, then notch that up as a win for me…