phone scam, robocall

How to Minimize Those Annoying Robocalls

We’ve all experienced an increase in those annoying robocalls we get on both our landlines (wireline residential phones) and our cell phones.

Robocalls are phone calls that contain prerecorded messages, often showing up on your Caller ID screen with a fake phone number making it appear to be a local call (referred to as number spoofing), and typically involving some kind of fraud.

 

Most robocalls are illegal, the exception being if you agreed to being contacted. An example of this might be calls from your doctor or pharmacy using a prerecorded message reminding you of an annual appointment or prescription refill.

Additionally, political and charitable calls can still be legally made to landline phones in most states.

Why have robocalls increased so much in the past few years?

In 2003 the National Do Not Call Registry was created. Consumers could list their phone numbers on this registry and at least legitimate telemarketers would ensure they did not call those individuals. Consumers saw an immediate drop in the number of robocalls they received, because at the time most of these prerecorded automated calls were from legitimate businesses used for sales and marketing purposes versus scammers.

The issue today is that technology (in particular voice over internet technology/VOIP) has evolved to make it incredibly cheap for robocallers to make a high volume of calls from outside the US using a fake Caller ID that appears local. So, as a common example, you may receive a fraudulent prerecorded call stating you have a critical security breach on your home computer and need to press “1” to be immediately connected to Microsoft support. The area code displayed on your Caller ID may in fact be that of where Microsoft is located (in Redmond, Washington, with an area code of 425). But the caller could be anywhere in the world.

A robocall can be sent to literally millions of people for pennies a minute. That has attracted the fraud and the scammers.

It has been estimated that consumers lose over $350 million to phone scams each year, most from overseas scammers that are far from the reach of US laws and penalties.

Many robocall scams are targeted at the elderly because older adults may be more likely to press a key to talk to a representative, and may be more easily tricked by the caller. The Federal Trade Comission (FTC) estimates that some 80 percent of certain types of telemarketing scams target people aged 65 and older.

Robocalls are like email “spam”, just via the phone. And just like the hundreds of fraudulent emails that your Internet provider redirects to your spam folder each day, shouldn’t there be better “spam filters” provided by our telephone and wireless service providers in regards to robocalls?

Who should be fixing this enormous consumer headache?

The FTC, which monitors complaints relating to the Do Not Call Registry, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are looking to the telecom companies to take more aggressive action with robocalls.

The telecom companies in most cases have been responding slowly. Some have indicated concern over accidentally blocking legitimate automated calls, such as weather and emergency alerts, or other automated communications.

The FTC follows-up on complaints and attempts to shut down the illicit operations of robocallers but it is difficult given that most are based outside the US.

Early in 2016 legislation was introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA14) called the “Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones Act – the RoboCop Act” that would require telecom companies to block calls with fraudulent Caller ID and offer consumers free and easy access to robocall-blocking technology. This legislation died during the legislature’s term so will need to be re-introduced.

Some experts say that much in the same way that the Internet has the “lock icon” next to web addresses to ensure their authenticity, something similar is needed for phone lines so that spoofing (using the fake Caller ID) from International locations simply can’t be done.

What can YOU do today?

There are three approaches you can take to reduce robocalls.

  • Practical things you can easily do for free, today, and everyday
  • Telecom service provider call blocking options and smart phone applications
  • Physical blocking devices

We’ll talk a bit about each of these.

Practical things you can easily do to reduce robocalls

  • First, protect your phone numbers. Do not give them out online or when filling out contest forms, surveys, etc. Always question whether your phone number is truly required when asked.
  • Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry: it will at least stop the legitimate telemarketing calls. Call (888)382-1222 from the phone you wish to register, or visit https://www.donotcall.gov/. When registering use a real email address as you will need to confirm it.
  • When you get robocalls NEVER press “1” to speak to a representative or to be removed from the list: these calls go out to millions of people requesting you press “1” (or some other key) to talk with someone OR TO BE REMOVED from the list. Never do this, as all you are doing by pressing the key is validating that your number works. The scammers will then sell your verified number to others so you’ll likely get even more robocalls.
  • It isn’t a good idea to call suspicious numbers back: Some scammers intentionally only ring your phone once (a popular scam in the Caribbean). The scammers hope you will call them back. You may not be aware the number is an international pay-per-call phone number that will charge you $9.95 or more to connect.
  • Do complain to the FTC (Do Not Call Registry) when you get fraudulent calls: It can only help for them to have additional information which they can use to analyze patterns and build cases. File a complaint with the FTCor FCC or call the FTC at 1-888-382-1222 or the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC.
  • If you do end up interacting with a live person always ask them to put you on their do not call list and tell them you are not interested, and hang up. If it is a legitimate company or charity they should honor your request.
  • Record a greeting using disconnect tones: Some consumers have taken to recording special information tones (SITs) on their telephone answering machines. One SIT is to use a recording of the three tones that the telecoms use for numbers that have been disconnected or are no longer in service. You can find recordings of these tones online. The SITs MAY help deal with robocalls although many fraudulent robocallers don’t even bother validating the numbers on their list. The tones are also confusing to people who legitimately call you.

Telecom service provider call blocking options and smart phone applications

After you take care of the basics noted above, you can do a little research on what services are available from your particular telecom service provider.

Here are a few things you can look at that can be useful in reducing issues with robocalls:

  • Caller ID: if you don’t have it you might want to get it. Yes, robocalls can spoof fake numbers, but with Caller ID you can at least identify the numbers of friends and family.
  • Anonymous Call Rejection: Many phone companies offer this as a free service. It screens out all calls from callers who have blocked their caller ID information. This won’t help with faked Caller IDs, just blocked ones.
  • Call blocking: The option to list numbers to block them permanently. This can be helpful but many robocalling telemarketers change their numbers frequently to circumvent this.
  • Wireless/cell smart phone apps: Note that the CTIA has cellular device-specific webpages devoted to listings of applications (some free) to help with robocalls. LINK http://www.ctia.org/consumer-tips/robocalls The CTIAI, formerly known as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, is an international wireless industry trade group. These device-specific pages are very helpful, please check them out. Here are two examples:
    • Truecaller (wireless): This application verifies the name and the real location of the person calling in real time. It also has a blacklist that it can check against. Calls coming in generate a text with a spam score prior to ringing through. Users can set up the app to automatically block high spam scoring calls.
    • PrivacyStar (wireless): Screens incoming calls and uses a color code to flag you on suspicious calls. The app uses calling history from your own contact list as well as the history of complaints tagged to that number. It will block suspicious (red colored) calls.
  • Call-blocking applications:
    • Nomorobo (landline already available on limited networks, wireless announced): Nomorobo verifies if an incoming call is a real person or robo-caller, and if a robo-caller uses it, a blacklist comprised of robocall numbers supplied by federal agencies, consumers and other companies. It checks incoming calls and stops them if they are on the blacklist.
    • Primus Canada (landline Canadian offer): This telecom provider has offered a free call-filtering service to their customers since 2007! The service spots suspicious calling patterns and uses a system that harnesses user feedback to screen out and block unwanted calls.

Investigate physical blocking devices

There are many devices (usually smaller than a telephone answering machine in size) available online that have positive user reviews in regards to reducing robocalls. Just go onto Amazon or another online market and do a search on “robocalls” or “call blocking”. These devices focus on landline phones.

Some operate based on blocking blacklisted numbers. They may come pre-programmed with known scam numbers and allow the user to enter more for blacklisting. They may have international blocking functions (allowing all international calls to be rejected or specific area codes, such as Jamaica). I found one device available that requires all callers to listen to a recorded message (prior to the phone ringing through) that requests they press a given number. Robocalls are not set up to do that so get disconnected.

Final thoughts on minimizing robocalls

Put some pressure on your local Senators and Representatives. There is an “End Robocalling” petition at https://secure.consumersunion.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=3148 that is sponsored by Consumers Union. Consumers Union is the policy and action division of Consumers Reports.

The good news? The petition doesn’t require your phone number.

Diane Blum is a freelance writer. Please visit her at http://www.DianeBlum.com or at http://www.ObsoletedSoccerMom.com