Mandarin hospital robocalls

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Article in The Washington Post (6/18/19):

"Robocalls are overwhelming hospitals and patients, threatening a new kind of health crisis"

" … Many of the messages seemed to be the same: Speaking in Mandarin, an unknown voice threatened deportation unless the person who picked up the phone provided their personal information…."

In the heart of Boston, Tufts Medical Center treats scores of health conditions, administering measles vaccines for children and pioneering next-generation tools that can eradicate the rarest of cancers.

But doctors, administrators and other hospital staff struggled to contain a much different kind of epidemic one April morning last year: a wave of thousands of robocalls that spread like a virus from one phone line to the next, disrupting communications for hours.

For most Americans, such robocalls represent an unavoidable digital-age nuisance, resulting in seemingly constant interruptions targeting their phones. For hospitals, though, the spam calls amount to a literal life-or-death challenge, one that increasingly is threatening doctors and patients in a setting where every second can count.

I asked my son, who is a career Telecom Engineer, about this. He said it is another version of something called a DoS (or DDoS) extortion scheme – denial of service. The criminals arrange automated systems that flood calls or data requests to a targeted victim's telecom system, rendering that system incapable of processing normal work. They then demand a payment from the victim before they will stop the overwhelming requests and return the system to normal. The criminals have to make a demand that their victim is willing to pay but also generates a profit for them. High level DoS can get into very tricky situations where victim companies sometimes hire security professionals to negotiate suspension of the attacks and or diffuse the attacks without negotiation.


"Pinyin spam text message" (10/18/15)

"Mandarin phone spam" (5/3/18)

"Automated transcription-cum-translation" (12/17/18)


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 18, 2019 @ 10:07 pm

    This leaves unanswered the question of why crooks are spamming Boston hospitals in Mandarin.

  2. Certainly a person said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 7:19 am

    I wonder if this is not DDoS attack, but simply a regular spammer who calls all of the number for an exchange in rapid succession. Presumably, Tufts has a block of nearby phone numbers. I have noticed, similarly, occasions where all the cellphones in my household were spammed by the same message back to back.

    I would also like to claim, without proof, that this telephone based spamming/DoS-ing is much more easily solvable than internet spamming, because the telephone network is more centralized and structured. I get the impression that it is not being fixed because of lobbying by legal telemarketers, who do not want to make mass calling more difficult.

  3. David L said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    A couple of months ago I was getting those calls frequently on my cell and landline numbers. It doesn't matter that most people in this country don't know Mandarin. Robocalls go out to millions of numbers at little cost, so they reach the few who do know Mandarin.

    I live in an area with a fairly significant Asian population. Boston is probably similar. It may be that the robocallers target certain area codes and prefixes for that reason.

  4. Francois Lang said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 8:18 am

    We get Mandarin calls on our land line and on our cell phones regularly. But they may be specifically targeted, because even though I am not Chinese, my surname is very common in China, and my wife is from Beijing (and of course has a Chinese name).

  5. Jonathan said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 11:03 am

    @DavidL, Tufts Medical Center is right next door to Boston's Chinatown.

  6. Steven Marzuola said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 11:23 am

    I've gotten several Chinese language robocalls, about one a month. I don't speak Chinese, my name isn't Chinese, I've never been to China or worked with anyone on any project about China.

  7. John Duncan said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

    On the topic of robocalls, tho I've nothing to say about Mandarin calls as I've not gotten any, with the below likely explaining why I miss out on these sorts of things…

    I get very few spam calls here, and about a week ago, while getting a new car, I found out why.

    I've a VoIP phone (not cell), and dimly remember checking some anti-spam option a couple years ago. Apparently, they now check caller-ID, and if it's from certain businesses or certain countries, etc, it will dial thru but show up as "scam likely" (which I've seen/heard with talking caller-ID a number of times). If I don't pickup, I'll often get a relatively short (3-15 seconds) voicemail that's generally silence.

    What I found out a few days ago was what the other end gets. They tried to call, naturally on the dealership line, to verify my phone number. What they got was a "weird" (their description) recording, pretending to be … I'd describe it as someone's stereotype of a "low information" redneck (and yes, I know that does mark me as having a mild version of the stereotype here). "Clem" answers with his name, waits a few seconds, says he's having trouble hearing, and goes quiet for 30 seconds or a minute (didn't time it), during which they're presumably doing their spiel. He then says something non-committal and goes quiet again, presumably to repeat, tho we hung up at that point.

    The calling end's interaction is recorded and sent via email for the VoIP customer's entertainment, and yes I had that one waiting when I got home, but apparently, most spammers figure it out reasonably quickly and start hanging up and programming their robocall systems to hangup when they encounter it, thus the relatively few and relatively short mostly silence voicemails I had been getting, before the spammer (or perhaps the VoIP provider) blacklists the number (called if spammer blacklist, calling if VoIP blacklist) entirely.

    When it's not a (VoIP-provider) blacklisted number/country/whatever, the call goes thru normally (one of the guys at the dealership called with their personal cell phone and got the normal voicemail when I didn't pickup as I was at the dealer), thus the reason I didn't know about "Clem" until this week. (FWIW, as a result of that, they did want three references instead of the one they had wanted earlier, but I was able to provide them and they checked out, and my credit score is excellent, so I got the car.)

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