Suspicious robocall campaign warning people to ‘stay home’ spooks voters nationwide

An unidentified robocaller has placed an estimated 10 million calls in the past several weeks warning people to “stay safe and stay home,” spooking some Americans who said they saw it as an attempt to scare them away from the polls on Election Day.

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The barrage of calls all feature the same short, recorded message: A computerized female voice says the message is a “test call” before twice encouraging people to remain inside. The robocalls, which have come from a slew of fake or unknown numbers, began over the summer and intensified in October, and now appear to have affected nearly every Zip code in the United States.

The reach and timing of the calls recently caught the attention of YouMail, a tech company that offers a robocall-blocking app for smartphones, as well as some of the country’s top telecom carriers, which determined from an investigation that the calls may be foreign in origin and sophisticated in their tactics. Data from YouMail shows that the calls have reached 280 of the country’s 317 area codes since the campaign began in the summer.

While the robocall does not explicitly mention the 2020 presidential election or issues that might affect voters’ well-being, including the coronavirus pandemic, it still threatens to create confusion, said Alex Quilici, YouMail’s chief executive. And it illustrates worrisome vulnerabilities in the country’s phone system, he said, that sophisticated actors could exploit.

“If you wanted to cause havoc in America for the elections, one way to do it is clearly robocalling,” Quilici said. “This whole thing is exposing [that] it can be very difficult to react quickly to a large calling volume campaign.”

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When Zach McMullen received a call Monday telling him it was “time to stay home,” he assumed the warning was related to the coronavirus. His co-workers at an Atlanta bakery had received the same message, and they initially figured it was the city government enforcing its public health guidelines.

But the “robotic voice” gave McMullen pause, as did the second call — and then the third, and the fourth — delivering the same monotone message on the same day.

“I think they mean stay home and don’t vote,” the 37-year-old concluded.

The torrent of calls illustrated the wide array of technologies that voters say are being used to convince and confuse them in the closing days of a dizzying presidential campaign. Four years after Russian agents exploited social media to spread divisive messages, Americans have come to expect similar efforts everywhere — including on their phones.

Robocalls long have represented a national scourge: Scammers contributed greatly to the 4 billion automated calls placed to Americans just last month, outwitting years of efforts by Washington regulators to crack down on the spam. But these tactics — dialing Americans en masse, sometimes illegally and without their consent — have taken on greater significance given the contentiousness of the 2020 presidential race. The same tools that have helped candidates and their allies reach their supporters properly also represent new avenues for falsehoods to spread widely — and without much visibility.

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The “stay home” robocall appears to have bombarded Americans since the summer, sometimes yielding a roughly estimated half-million calls each day, according to data collected by YouMail.

USTelecom, a trade association for AT&T, Verizon and other telecom giants, has sought to trace and combat the campaign in recent days, according to Brian Weiss, the group’s spokesman. He said early evidence suggests that the calls are “possibly coming from Europe,” though they are sometimes routed through other foreign telecom providers.

The unidentified actor behind the robocall campaign also appears to have relied on other sophisticated tactics to ensure that the companies behind the country’s phone systems could not easily stop it, according to USTelecom and other robocall experts. That includes cycling through phone numbers, often using a number similar to the one owned by the person they are trying to dial, a practice known as spoofing.

Unlike most robocall scams, which seek to swindle Americans into returning the calls and surrendering sensitive information, the “stay home” campaign also has raised suspicions because the calls include no such effort.

“They’re usually threatening you to provide your Social Security number or something will happen to you,” said Giulia Porter, the vice president of marketing at TelTech, which owns the smartphone blocking app RoboKiller. “From this robocall, we can’t see anything that is indicating they’re actually trying to get something from you.”

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The nature of the message gave many recipients across the country the impression that the cryptic alert sought to keep them from the polls. The concerns they expressed — that it might succeed in turning people off from voting — reflect long-standing fears that the pandemic could undermine participation in the 2020 election. Numerous states have expanded opportunities to vote by mail in response to safety concerns, and election administrators have taken pains to retrofit in-person voting for the coronavirus, supplying hand sanitizer and other safeguards.

“My reaction was this is likely an attempt to get people not to vote,” said Kevin Porman, a 40-year-old living outside Indianapolis.

For some recipients, there was no risk of that.

Laurie Chiambalero, a nurse in Philadelphia who has a Boston area code, said she answered the call out of a belief that it might be a friendly public health reminder.

“But when I got it a second time,” she said, “it really felt like it was telling me to stay indoors the next few days because of the election.”

Chiambalero, however, said she’d already cast her ballot. “They’re not intimidating me,” she announced.

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