America’s Spam-Call Scourge

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Any person with a phone knows that spam calls are a real problem in the United States. But fighting them is like playing whack-a-mole.

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Robocall Whack-a-Mole

In a classic Seinfeld scene, Jerry answers a phone call from a telemarketer, says he’s busy, and asks if he can call them back at home later. “I’m sorry, we’re not allowed to do that,” the marketer replies.

“Oh,” Jerry says, “I guess you don’t want people calling you at home.”


“Well, now you know how I feel,” Jerry says, before hanging up to the sound of studio laughter.

It’s a quintessential Seinfeld joke, trenchant about the peeves of everyday life in America. Calls from telemarketers were already a well-known annoyance in the 1990s, but both telemarketing and spam calls have morphed into a much more common—and more sophisticated—problem in the decades since. Whenever my phone rings, I experience a few feelings in quick succession: curiosity about who might be calling, followed by dread that it’s a spammer, followed by a mix of guilt and intrigue about the possibility that whoever is calling might actually be someone important. And that’s only if my phone actually rings; so pockmarked is my phone log with spam calls that I’ve taken to leaving my phone on “Do Not Disturb” much of the time.

Unwanted calls have been a problem for decades, at least since an enterprising consultant created a “sucker list” of potential customers on behalf of Ford in the 1960s. By the late ’80s, predictive dialing meant that telemarketers were beginning to drive Americans up the wall. In 2003, Congress established a national Do Not Call registry, which charged telemarketers with a hefty fine anytime they contacted someone on the list. Legitimate telemarketing actors backed down, and the effort brought Americans relief for a short time—until an army of robocallers working on behalf of unscrupulous and spammy companies made things even worse.

No longer did you need to manually annoy Americans; by the late aughts, computers could make high volumes of spam calls for you. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission enacted a rule making marketing robocalls illegal unless the recipient has given the caller prior consent. (Some robocalls, such as notifications from schools about a snow day, remain legal.) But the government has struggled to enforce this rule. The Federal Communications Commission, another government agency combating the issue, has levied some fines—though many scammers simply can’t pay them—and supported efforts to stem spoof calls. YouMail, a robocall-blocking service, estimated that more than 4.5 billion robocalls were placed last month—about 1,700 calls a second. That’s more than 13 calls per person over the course of the month. About one-fifth of those were scams, and another third were telemarketing calls. It’s inexpensive for scammers to blanket consumers with calls, with the goal of getting even a small percentage to fall for it. The government is playing a game of robocall whack-a-mole.

A spokesperson for the FCC told me that protecting consumers from scams is among the department’s highest priorities, adding that the number of complaints about unwanted calls has trended downward in recent years. The same trend is true for the FTC’s complaints. Fear of being scammed looms large in Americans’ psyches: New data from Gallup found that being tricked by a scammer into sending money or sharing access to a financial account was the second-highest victimization concern (behind identity theft), with 57 percent of respondents saying they worried about it frequently or occasionally. (Far fewer said that they worried to the same extent about such crimes as murder and burglary.)

Some of the survey respondents said that people they knew, including family members, had been victims. Seniors are especially vulnerable to scam calls. “Grandparent scams,” which try to trick elderly people into thinking their grandkids are in trouble and need money, are one cruel and common tactic, along with scams whereby callers pretend to be officials such as IRS agents.

One knock-on effect of the spam-call problem is the way it’s changing people’s relationship to the phone call, which was once essential to our social life. As Alexis Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic in 2018, the spam-call situation has gotten so dire that “the reflex of answering—built so deeply into people who grew up in 20th-century telephonic culture—is gone.” Spam calls are making the act of picking up the phone anathema. In 2023, I wonder if Jerry would have picked up at all.


  • Why no one answers their phone anymore
  • It’s time to protect yourself from AI voice scams.

Today’s News

  1. A gunman killed at least 14 people and wounded at least two dozen others at Charles University, in Prague. The suspected perpetrator of the worst mass shooting in the Czech Republic’s history is dead, according to the police.
  2. Rudy Giuliani filed for bankruptcy a day after a federal judge ordered him to immediately start paying $148 million in damages to two Georgia election workers he defamed.
  3. A Pacific storm hammered Southern California with torrential rain and floods, raising concerns about holiday-travel disruptions.


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Evening Read

Universal / Everett Collection

Zack Snyder, the Director People Love to Hate

By Dave Itzkoff

One July morning, at a cavernous soundstage on Sunset Boulevard, amplified sound effects boomed so loudly that the walls trembled. On a massive projection screen, futuristic vehicles zipped across alien skies; laser blasts reduced strange architecture to rubble; knives sliced through flesh; an authoritarian army celebrated an unknown triumph. An android with the majestic voice of Anthony Hopkins asked, “Who among you is willing to die for what you believe?”

The footage had been spliced together to create a teaser trailer for Rebel Moon, a science-fiction epic directed by Zack Snyder. Snyder smiled with satisfaction, though he also had notes. “You know what would be cool?” he said to colleagues who were sitting behind an elaborate audio-mixing console. “Is there a way to have it go BOOOOOOOOM and then vroom, have this kind of shock wave?” …

His professed franchise-fatigue notwithstanding, he is already thinking about a Rebel Moon sequel and preparing a video-game spin-off, along with, yes, a graphic novel. But does the world want more Zack Snyder?

Read the full article.

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The first story in Vauhini Vara’s new collection, This Is Salvaged, follows a bereaved teenager and her friend as they find themselves drawn into a telemarketing scheme slash phone-sex operation in Seattle. Vara, a former colleague of mine, manages to make the work of sitting at a table and calling up strangers about cruises seem intimate and tragic and seamy all at once. I had no real mental picture of what this work was like before reading the story. One of my big takeaways: It’s bleak, and it can get much weirder than I imagined.

— Lora

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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