Imagine this: During a major public health crisis, such as an outbreak – when doctors, administrators and health care field workers need to be in contact – a hospital's phone system goes down, potentially putting lives at risk.
That's a scenario that officials at Tufts Medical Center, located in Boston, as well as other health care facilities, are likely concerned about as they struggle with an inundation of robocalls.
The hospital, which is a center for biomedical research and the main teaching hospital for Tufts University School of Medicine, received more than 4,500 robocalls in a two-hour period the morning of April 30, 2018, according to The Washington Post. The messages featured a voice speaking in Mandarin and threatened deportation if someone did not provide certain personal information.
The scourge of robocalls is well documented. Last year, global spam calls grew by 325 percent to at least 85 billion, according to a report from Hiya. And the fake calls just keep on coming.
Lawmakers and consumers have demanded action, while telecommunication companies and tech companies like Apple have rolled out new features over the last year to combat the intensifying, annoying calls.
"These calls to health care institutions and patients are extremely dangerous to the public health and patient privacy," Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who has put forward the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act to try to clamp down on the problem, told the Post. "The FCC and Justice Department need to go after these criminals with the seriousness and urgency this issue deserves."
The issue poses specific risks for medical professionals since phone scammers tend to adopt a technique that experts call spoofing, in which people receive robocalls from numbers that either resemble legitimate institutions or are numbers similar to their own.
Still, this threat for the medical industry isn't new. Lawmakers cited consumers' complaints that robocalls tied up critical emergency lines as far back as 1991, according to the Post.
Dave Summitt, chief information security officer for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, testified before Congress in March that robocalls are a "serious" threat to his company, with more than 6,600 robocalls having consumed 65 hours of hospital response time over the course of a 90-day period.
"These calls can be quite disturbing and disruptive, and we, along with other organizations have to manage them on a daily basis," he said during his testimony.
For consumers, there are steps that can be taken to flag and block robocalls.
Meanwhile, hospital workers at Tufts are trying their best to keep up with the flood of scam calls.
“These disruptions add up to being a big deal,” Taylor Lehmann, the center’s chief information security officer, told the Post.