There’s lots of excitement around Apple’s upcoming iOS 17 Live Voicemail feature, like this Wall Street Journal article wondering whether it will make voicemail cool again. While it’s a nice idea, there’s some serious consumer safety issues just beneath the surface.
What Is Live Voicemail?
The basic idea is simple. When you don’t answer a call, instead of the caller leaving a voicemail you read or listen to later, you see a live transcription of the voicemail as it is being left. This lets you decide whether to break in and pick up the call.
If that sounds familiar to those of a certain age, it’s because Live Voicemail is basically 1990’s answering machines brought to 2020’s iPhones, but you get to read a transcription instead of having to listen to audio.
Ideally, Live Voicemail solves one important problem: deciding whether to pick up the phone for “unknown” callers. By combining this with “Send Unknown Callers To Voicemail”, your phone doesn’t ring and you get Live Voicemail automatically for any unknown caller. But even without “Send Unknown Callers” on, just not answering a call will send them to Live Voicemail, and you can screen them, as long as they don’t just hang up.
Sounds good, right?
The Big Problem with Live Voicemail
The problem is simple. Scammers now have the opportunity to get in front of their targets every single time they call.
EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. THEY. CALL.
That means Apple’s Live Voicemail is actually helping scammers scam.
To get why, imagine you get the following live transcription on your screen (a real call that has been going around).
Hi this is Daniel from Amazon Customer Service. My employee ID AMG 8765 8873 and I am calling here about Amazon prime account. I wanted to inform you that your Amazon prime account is been compromised as there is an order for iPhone and were $349 a week party at with Amazon has been charged but we placed calls on it and that order is being to be fraudulent. Press one to talk with Amazon Fraud Department executive. Hi this is Daniel from Amazon Customer Service. My employee ID AMG 80 7065 the 873 and I am calling to hear about Amazon prime account. I wanted to inform you that your Amazon prime account is been compromised and there is an order for iPhone 10 for $349 for which card attached with Amazon is been charged but we placed hold on it and that order is being to be fraudulent. Press one to talk with Amazon Fraud Department executive.
What do you do when you see this?
If you’re super aware of brand impersonation scams, you’ll likely just ignore it. This call then just wasted a bunch of your time and got your heart racing for a minute – where before it would have gone to regular voicemail where it’s much easier to think about and ignore. But if you’re not aware of these scams and just see something about a charge to your account, you may well just quickly answer and press 1. And then the scammer is off to the races.
This isn’t theoretical.
Scammers are already are taking advantage of the feature, without making any changes to their normal calling behavior. Live Voicemail just makes their scam calls dramatically more effective. With old school voicemail, you could listen to or read the whole message at your leisure, and then decide whether to call them back. That is, you could take time to research the phone number or even the content of the message to decide whether it really was Amazon, FedEx, or your bank.
But now the Live Voicemail real-time transcription effectively creates a sense of urgency, so people who otherwise would have safely ignored the call feel like they have to answer.
So with Live Voicemail, Apple is effectively helping scammers get in front of potential victims.
What Apple Should Do With Live Voicemail
Live Voicemail has its place, and can be a really nice feature for an educated user. That’s someone who carefully considers the plusses and minuses. Someone who definitely wants to screen incoming calls. And someone who is unlikely to fall for a scam.
The real problem is that iOS 17 switches it on for everyone by default, at least in the beta versions so far. This essentially turns hundreds of millions of iPhone users into a target rich environment, since they’re generally not expecting the Live Voicemail scam messages. Further, the scammers will modify their systems to recognize iPhones, carefully target their messages to be optimal for driving people to answer, and get much, much better over time at pulling people into their scams.
Making a potentially dangerous feature the default when people upgrade to iOS 17 is exactly the opposite of what should be done.
So what’s the right thing to do? Apple needs to prioritize safety for their user base and make the feature opt-in. Then make users aware of the feature, make sure they understand the risks and rewards, and let them decide whether or not they want to turn it on. In the meantime, consumers need to be educated to opt-out of the feature if they don’t want to have to deal with more scam and spam calls. (It’s easy: just go to Settings > Phone > Live Voicemail.)
Our prediction is this. Unless Apple changes its mind, we’re going to see more and more iPhone users be victims of fraudulent robocalls. We’ll see more and more news stories about the poor grandma who lost her retirement savings because of a Live Voicemail that impersonated a well-known brand. We wouldn’t even be surprised if some enterprising class action attorney files a lawsuit as soon as the reports of successful scams come out, with one of those “should have known the likely harm” claims.
Apple, are you listening? We don’t want to be the ones who have to say “I told you so.”