Robocallers tried to cash in on the federal government shutdown

Key Points
  • About 5 billion robocalls are made every month, according to robocall blocking app, YouMail. That number has been consistent, but the context of those calls changes.
  • YouMail gave CNBC two calls on taxes that were sent out to more than 1 million people during the partial federal government shutdown.
  • During the shutdown, if consumers tried to add their number to the Do Not Call Registry, they found the website was not operating.
  • Websites to file complaints with government were also shut. They quickly came back when the government reopened.
No shutdown for robocallers

The phone rings and you run to pick it up, only to hear an automated recording. You are not alone.

There are approximately 5 billion robocalls made every month, according to robocall blocking app, YouMail. That number has been consistent, but the context of those calls changes. The most recent scam? Robocallers were trying to cash in on the recent partial federal government shutdown.

"The robocallers are marketers. You can think of them as marketers in the wrong business," said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail. "They are always testing different ways to get people to respond to their calls."

Days after the shutdown, two robocalls began about taxes.

"I have an important update regarding your IRS tax debt. The recent government shutdown is affecting your standing with the IRS and although some IRS operations are down, billing and collections remain active. So give me a call back at this number," said one recording given to CNBC by YouMail.

The second call was also about taxes.

"I was actually calling because in lieu of the government shutdown, backed federal taxes are now being dismissed at just an unstoppable rate. We can take advantage of the situation and help you clear out not just your federal back taxes but also some state tax issues you might be facing. When you get this message please give me a call back," said another recording given to CNBC by YouMail.

YouMail estimates more than 1 million people got the call with many people receiving it more than once. Quilici says with these type of calls, 3 to 5 percent of receivers call back.

"Some fraction of those people are going to get scammed and it's going to be for real money," Quilici said.

During the shutdown, if consumers tried to add their number to the Do Not Call Registry, a list of people who do not want to be called by telemarketers maintained by the Federal Trade Commission, they found the website shutdown. The websites to file complaints with the FTC, or Federal Communications Commission, which also has oversight of robocalls, were also shut. The websites quickly came back once the government reopened.

This message appeared when trying to file a robocall complaint on the FCC's website.

If the government were shutdown longer, Quilici expects there could have been greater effects.

"The real impact for all of this is the long-term enforcement. So had the government shut down for a long time, the FCC isn't chasing the bad guys," he said.

"These two examples make clear robocallers read the news and leverage events to dupe people and get their money. They are very similar to the IRS scam calls that scare people into thinking they owe back taxes, when they do not. Because of the government shutdown, the FTC was not funded and could not receive complaints from consumers. But, we are open and very much want people to report [such calls] to the FTC at These complaints are critical to our law enforcement work," said Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC's division of marketing practices.

The FCC directed CNBC to its website.

The FCC is working to, as Chairman Ajit Pai said, "stop the scourge of illegal robocalls." He has made combating unlawful robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing his "top consumer protection priority," the website reads. "Chairman Pai has launched several important public policy initiatives to help combat unlawful robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing. The Commission under his leadership has also taken unprecedented enforcement actions to punish those who flout consumer protection laws."

Robocallers also take advantage of other news.

"The last election we saw the student loan scammers talk about how President [Donald] Trump was going to force people to pay back their money right away," Quilici said. "We've seen with Obamacare when there's the deadline Dec. 15 the scam calls pick up rapidly."

The scammers can also take advantage of the government being open. "I actually expect to see more about the government being back open and we can now help you than we saw about the government being shut down," Quilici said.

If the government shuts down again, Quilici expects the same tax calls to start up.

The scammers behind the calls can be from anywhere, even the U.S., but Quilici says they most commonly come from India. To make the calls sound more professional, he says they sometimes hire voiceover talent from the U.S. online.

YouMail App

To stop robocalls, you should report them to the government. You should also not answer calls from unknown numbers, and if you get a message from an unknown caller, do not call back. If you get a call claiming to be from a government agency, call back using the number on their website, according to the FCC.

For your mobile phone, you can download apps to prevent robocalls. There are a few different options, according to Quilici. Some phone companies also offer robocall blocking services, according to the FCC.