'Russian' robocalls plague company director

A recorded voice asks for 'Mike' up to 20 times a day

A director of an Auckland database consulting and IT services firm receives up to 20 calls a day to his Telecom mobile phone from different overseas numbers, but always with the same message — a recorded voice that says: “Hello… Do you hear me?... Can I speak to Mike, please?... Mike Hutchinson.”

“It’s driving me nuts,” says the director, who wishes to stay anonymous. “At first, I thought I was targeted and started thinking about if I had any enemies,” he says.

But after searching the internet and finding that other people across the world have received calls with the same message, he believes his number has been chosen randomly.

“I wonder if this is some sort of voice-over-IP virus, or something similar to spam, but spreading over VoIP [rather than email],” he says.

The calls started in February this year. At first it was a couple of calls per week, but in the last two months the number of calls has escalated and now he gets as many a 15-20 every day, the director tells Computerworld.

When he contacted Telecom a couple a months ago, the call centre staff said they had never heard of this problem before, but when talking to Telecom’s Call Investigation Centre last week, he was told they are “inundated” with calls complaining about this problem, he says.

However, Telecom spokeswoman Julia Bell says the Call Investigation Centre has received one other call from a Telecom customer complaining about the exact same message. Telecom is currently investigating the problem, she says.

“We are trying to find out where the calls are coming from and how we can try to stop them,” she says.

A quick search on the internet comes up with several international discussion forums with people describing the same nuisance calls.

“Have been getting some calls on my mobile and one to my office phone... The last call I got to my mobile was a new version, [specifying] that the Borat guy/computer voice was looking for not just Mike, but Mike Hutchinson. This cracks me up!” wrote “Bner” in April on 800notes.com, a website that offers tracing of unknown numbers.

“My calls come about twice a week to the land line and cell phone, simultaneously”, wrote “Alex” in January. “[Four] rings, then either no sound at all or a recorded message: ‘Can I talk to Mike, please?’... Phone company cannot block 11 digit numbers. Cell phone company told me that they cannot block anyone. FBI should get involved.”

The number traced then was Russian, but according to the Telecom customer Computerworld talked to, the caller ID varies — sometimes it has the Russian country-code, sometimes the Chinese or that of other countries, he says.

A recent BBC article says it is estimated that the public receive 1.5 billion silent or malicious calls per year. So called robo-calls use automated systems, which are difficult to block, to deliver millions of pre-recorded messages.

Wikipedia suggests that autodialers are used to make many short duration calls, mainly to mobiles, leaving a missed call number.

This is either premium rate or contains advertising messages. It is also possible that a so called war-dialer program aims to detect if a human picks up the call.

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