Apr 18, 2022 - Podcasts

Why you're getting more spam texts

If you feel like you’ve been inundated with spam texts lately, you're not alone. According to new data from Robokiller, an app that blocks spam calls and texts, Americans received an average of 42 spam texts each just in the month of March.

  • Plus, the Pope pleads for peace on what he called “an Easter of War.”
  • And, the latest out of Ukraine.

Guests: Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and Zach Basu.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, April 18th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: The Pope pleads for peace on what he called “An Easter of War”. Plus, the latest from Ukraine.

But first, why it’s so hard to crack down on the latest form of spam – is today’s One Big Thing.

If you feel like you’ve been inundated with spam texts lately, you're not alone. According to new data from Robokiller, an app that blocks spam calls and texts, Americans received an average of 42 spam texts just in the month of March. I heard from dozens of you in more than 20 states about what kind of spam you've been getting - Clancy from Boise, Idaho told me many of the texts he's getting seem to be written by quote "a robot that doesn't know what it's doing"

I asked Axios tech and policy reporter Margaret Harding McGrill to tell us what's going on with these spam messages. Hey Margaret.

MARGARET HARDING MCGILL: Hey, thank you for having me!

NIALA: Margaret, a few people who texted me were worried that this was related to a potential cyber attack, especially given Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Do we know why we're seeing more of these texts lately?

MARGARET: I mean, some of them could be tied to a cyber attack. I don't know that for sure. It's safe to say more broadly that spammers and scammers go to where they can reach people. And for a long time that was calling people on the phone. People don't answer their phones anymore, in part because of scammers and spammers calling.

So sending the text is actually a much easier way to reach people. And, according to Robokiller, spam texts are now outnumbering spam phone calls.

NIALA: So another thing I heard from listeners was worry that if you're getting these messages, it means your data is out there for just anyone to use.

MARGARET: Well, I think what happens is that it's extremely easy to deploy these spam texts in a huge amount of volume. And there are actors all over the world trying to squeeze spam into the phone networks from, as the FCC told me, an almost infinite number of entry points all the time. So I don't think people should really, like, blame themselves too much for this because there are people who are just blasting out spam texts, nonstop, trying to, you know, get the margins of somebody who will actually click that link or give up some personal information. Now, that being said, we also give up our personal information all the time. I mean, how many times have you just handed over your phone number when you're checking out at a store, to get some kind of discount. So there I'm sure that there is some of that too, but really like, there are so many people trying to send out these spam texts that I think it's almost, unfortunately, un- unavoidable.

NIALA: Who are these people?

MARGARET: I mean, that is a great question. A lot of this originates overseas, and so it's really hard to pinpoint where they're coming from and even harder to bring enforcement action against them. There has been some federal enforcement against this, particularly on people doing robocalls, but I know from the federal communications commission, even when they identify a robocaller color, and charge them and issue a penalty, they can't even always collect that penalty. The person might not be able to pay it, or even the justice department might not bring the case against them to collect the money. So it's really, I know this is pretty depressing, but it's really hard to enforce against, too.

NIALA: That was what I was going to also ask you. Like we had a listener who said I'm on the do not call list. Does that make a difference?

MARGARET: I think it does in terms of like, if you get a call and you report it, you can say, look, I'm on this list. I'm not supposed to be called. But for the agencies to actually track down all those numbers and police against that, I think is a pretty tall order. Now I will say that on the robocall standpoint, the Federal Communications Commission and wireless carriers are implementing this call authentication technology to make sure that calls are coming from who they say they are, but the agency is playing catch up on spam text messages. Uh, chairwoman Rosenworcel, the head of the agency circulated a proposal that would craft rules to require wireless companies to block illegal text messaging. And she did that back in October, but her plan has not yet been voted on by the agency. And even once it is, it'll face a lengthy process before those proposed rules become final rules.

NIALA: And are those, is that accurate though? Because you, when you get, like, for example, it says it might be a spam call on your phone. That's not always been accurate for me.

MARGARET: No, it hasn't always been accurate for me either. I got a ‘scam likely’ notification when I was getting calls from the White House. So you can't always trust those. I would just like to say I got them from uh calls that came out of the White House. in both the Trump and Biden administrations. So at least they are non-partisan.

NIALA: Margaret Harding McGill covers tech policy for Axios. You can look out for the story that she did on this also on our site. And we'll include it in our show notes as well. Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET: Thank you.

NIALA: In a moment, the latest in the Ukraine war.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo on Easter Sunday in Vatican City, Pope Francis addressed the in-person crowds at St. Peter's square yesterday for the first time in two years, and called for peace in Ukraine.

POPE FRANCIS [translated to English]: Our eyes, too, are incredulous on this Easter of war. We have seen all too much blood, all too much violence.

NIALA: The day before the Pope met with the mayor of Malia topple, Ivan Fedorov, and three other Ukrainian lawmakers before Easter mass. As Russian forces push into the already devastated city of Mariupol, the Western city of Lviv became a target: five missiles struck the city early Monday morning. The attacks killed at least six people.

Axios’ Zach Basu is here now with the latest. Zach, have we seen attacks this far west?

ZACH BASU: So we did see an early bombing of Lviv about the first week or two of the conflict, but really most of the fighting has been, uh, concentrated in the east. The reason Lviv is, is so important and so different is that that's where a lot of the western embassies relocated, when Kyiv was under threat and it's also a city very close to the Polish border. So just on a symbolic level, it's quite threatening in a different level and not something that we really expected given that Russia had really been refocusing their efforts on the east.

NIALA: One of the questions we asked you last week, and we're still asking is on the other side of the country, who's controlling Mariupol right now?

ZACH: Right, so on the other side of the country - basically the distance from Chicago to DC, if that's how you want to think of Lviv to Mariupol - Russian forces are basically in control of Mariupol.

The last remaining Ukrainian troops are bunkered down in this massive steel plant. Russia had given those troops a deadline of Sunday morning to surrender or be eliminated, but the Ukrainians have ignored it and pledged to keep fighting on until the very end. President Zelensky has said that if Russia kills those troops, it would be the end of any peace negotiations. So the next few days will again be very critical for the trajectory of the war.

NIALA: We've also seen even more alarming reports of more than 900 civilian bodies being found. They appear to have been simply executed in the region surrounding Kyiv following their withdrawal of Russian forces from there. Have we heard of numbers as high before in terms of body counts being found?

ZACH: I mean, these are definitely the highest death tolls in areas that have been liberated from Russian occupation where we've seen some of the worst atrocities, like in Bucha, of course. And authorities are continuing to dig up mass graves so there's, there's really no doubt that these figures will continue to climb. The thing is there are also cities like Mariupol that are fully encircled by Russian troops and there's just simply no way of knowing how bad the situation there is.

Mariupol’s mayor has estimated that over 21,000 civilians have died. There are a hundred thousand people who are still believed to be trapped in the city and you know, if Russia does succeed in taking control, it's possible we mean that we may never know the full scale of the death.

NIALA: Axio’s Zach Basu. Thanks Zach.

ZACH: Thank you.

NIALA: One last thing for your Monday: COVID cases are rising again in the U.S., especially in the Northeast, as the BA2 variant spreads. Many experts are calling for the reinstatement of mask and vaccine mandates as a result. Are you still wearing a mask at indoor gatherings or stores? What’s the COVID situation in your city? Text me a voice memo at (202) 918-4893. Make sure to include your name and location. And we’ll have more on the state of COVID in the U.S. this week.

And that’s all for today, I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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