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46 spam calls per month: In Brazil, people are fighting back — and winning

The average phone in Brazil receives nearly 46 spam calls per month — nearly half again as many as Peru, the next most-harassed country. (MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — The calls won’t stop. They begin at 10 in the morning and go until 8, at least 10 per day, all seeking someone known only as “Mrs. Najir.”

Just one problem:

“I’m not Mrs. Najir,” said Leticia Pusti, 27. “That’s not my name.”

She has begged the bankers to stop calling. She has tried yelling. She has made complaints. She has even detailed the hullabaloo on social media, going so far as to change her name on Twitter to “Mrs. Najir, to the banks.” But the solicitations for a person whom Pusti neither is nor knows keep coming.

To Pusti, Mrs. Najir has become her modern-day white whale: Out there somewhere, unseen but always present, racking up bills and apparently in need of a quick loan at reasonable rates.

“Help me!” Pusti said. “Stop calling!”

The most extraordinary aspect of Pusti’s story isn’t that it is extreme, but that it’s so common. While other countries complain and pass laws to limit spam and scams and robocalls, Brazil has quietly become the most telephonically harassed nation in the world. According to the call-blocking service Truecaller, which analyzes 60 billion incoming calls every month, the monthly average number inundating the Brazilian phone more than doubled in the last two years, from 21 to nearly 46.

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By comparison, Italy, which was so flummoxed by spam callers that many call centers banned them on Sunday and national holidays, receives one-quarter that number. And the United States, where unwanted calls are a constant source of vexation, spurring congressional inquiries and legislation, receives less than half.

“It’s an absurdity!” lamented Patrícia Cardoso, who runs the consumer defense team at Rio’s public defender’s office. “Not every country has to deal with this.”

At first, analysts thought the problem was driven by phone companies offering competing data plans. Then came the divisive 2018 presidential election, and the leading theory was that the calls were political. Now the problem just seems kaleidoscopic. Scam artists, bankers, telemarketers, machines, even prison inmates with contraband phones: Anyone who can call does. And anyone who has a phone is aggravated.

Other times, it’s even harder for people to puzzle out: There’s no one on the other end. Just silence. Then a click.

Juliana Lopes in Sao Paulo estimates she gets more than a dozen such calls every day.

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “Why do they call and then hang up?”

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How it got to this point is a case study in the ongoing global fallout over data collection and sharing. In an endlessly bureaucratic society, Brazilians encounter an “infinity of registrations,” said Elisa Leonel, an official with Brazil’s telecommunications regulatory agency. Even buying everyday items — such as toothpaste at the pharmacy — will prompt a request from the sales attendant for personal tax identification numbers. All of that data gets sold, and resold, leaked and stolen, and the phone starts ringing.

This happens in a lot of countries. What makes Brazil different is that telemarketing remains virtually unregulated. “It’s hard to know where the calls are coming from,” Leonel conceded. “The situation is completely out of control.”

In a dizzyingly diverse country, where politics is ideological warfare, people can barely agree on anything. But everyone does seem to agree on that.

The government this summer rolled out the “Do Not Disturb Me” list, and 1.5 million people signed up in the first week. Surveys show people are very unlikely to make official complaints about spam calls — most suffer in silence — but nearly 90,000 people did just that in the first six months of this year.

“Telemarketers continue to pester me by looking for Lélio, my father, who died more than three months ago,” one person said.

“Thirty times per day on average,” another person vented.

“Why?” another asked.

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An increasing number of people are taking their complaints to the courts. One person sued the telephone company, Claro, which had been calling 20 times per day, and won nearly $10,000.

Another person sued when a phone company kept calling after promising in a written agreement it would stop. In one courthouse in Espirito Santo state alone, more than 500 people have sued over incessant calls in the past year, and won.

“It was hell, the life of this person,” said Evandro Pedrolo, an attorney who represented one client who pocketed $10,000 after suing.

Hell? Perhaps.

What happened to Fernando Lopes, in his estimation, was worse than some annoying calls.

“It was a Saturday, and I was in the kitchen of my house, and they call me, and it sounded like my daughter on the phone, and she says, ‘Something terrible has happened,’ ” he said. She’d been kidnapped and was sobbing. Then another voice came on and demanded a ransom of $12,500.

Lopes promised to get the money, then tried calling his daughter on her phone. No answer. On his way out the door to go to the bank, he found her: She’d been inside her room the whole time. It was a scam, part of a trend of fake kidnapping calls sweeping the country this year.

“I would have transferred the money,” he said. “You think it’s your daughter on the phone.”

In the time since, he has received two more calls just like it.

What can be done? How can the calls be stopped?

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These are the questions that Pusti — otherwise known as Mrs. Najir — often considers. But they aren’t the only ones. Who is Mrs. Najir? What would Pusti say if she had the chance to speak to her alter ego?

“Please pay your debts,” she said. “Please pay your bills.”

Her father survived a heart attack in 2013. Now every time she receives a call from her home state of Rio Grande do Sul — whose area code the bankers also use — she thinks it could be important.

Now her phone was ringing. It was from Rio Grande do Sul.

She looked down at the screen, past the 506 unopened text messages — “90 percent spam,” she said — and answered it.

“Hello?” she said.

This time, only silence.

Heloisa Traiano in Rio de Janeiro and Marina Lopes in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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