Nearly 31 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S. in 2017, up 19 percent from 2016, according to YouMail, a call blocking service.
Have you reached the point where you don’t even answer your phone anymore because so often it’s just robocalls or scams?
Of course you have. We all have.
Robocalls and scam calls annoy us, invade our privacy, interrupt our focus and basically get under our skin so badly that we scream profanities into the phone. And while eliminating robocalls may not be on par with achieving world peace, most of us would gladly award the Nobel Peace Prize to the first person who can figure out a way to make them stop already.
You aren’t imagining things if it seems there are more of these calls than ever before. Nearly 31 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S. in 2017, up from the previous record of 29.3 billion in 2016, according to a report by YouMail, a call manager and call blocking service.
Worse yet, these unwanted calls can be way more than mere annoyances; some of them are crimes waiting to happen. More than 25 percent of these calls come from scammers looking for victims to defraud of money, identity information or both, according to a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of Truecaller, a caller ID and monitoring service. The survey found that phone scams stole $9.5 billion in 2016, with an average loss of $430 per victim ― and there were more than 22 million victims in the U.S. alone.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to stop getting these calls:
1. You can try the Do Not Call List, FWIW.
Technology made it possible for criminals to make unlimited calls, virtually for free, to every single phone number in North America, including Canada and many parts of the Caribbean. From there, it’s just a numbers game for the bad guys.
“They literally only need a small fraction of the number of people they call to believe the pitch and send them their hard-earned money,” wrote consumer columnist Theo Thimou. After all, if no one ever fell for the Nigerian prince email scam, people wouldn’t still be getting emails from fake Nigerian princes.
To help stop the bogus calls and texts from getting through, people can put their phone numbers on the federal Do Not Call registry via its website. You can also do this by calling the registry at 1-888-382-1222 from the number you want to protect.
Mind you, this registry isn’t a panacea. Some, like me, question its value at all. It certainly won’t protect you from many types of unwanted calls, including from political campaigns, debt collectors and charities. And scammers will obviously ignore the Do Not Call list. Still, it’s a place to start.
2. Or you can get revenge with an app.
The problem was created by technology, and technology exists to eliminate it ― or at least reduce it. There are third-party apps that can help reduce calls.
Nomorobo gets high praise from many users, including Consumer Reports. It’s a cloud-based service that hangs up on or blocks illegal robocalls or telemarketer calls. Hiya partners with smartphone makers and carriers to offer spam protection to their customers. Its Call Block Security identifies the calls you want to take and blocks numbers and texts you want to avoid ― for free.
Robokiller promises a 90 percent reduction in the number of unwanted calls you get within the first 30 days of service and sweetens the pot with this: Revenge against those who make these calls. It uses answer bots with realistic recorded conversational lines to engage the scammer and presumably tie up and waste scammers’ time. It’s kind of like what scammers want to do to you, minus the give-them-money part.
These and other apps designed to keep robocalls at bay pretty much rely on one thing: a database of phone numbers that scammers and telemarketers call from that is constantly updated. When you subscribe to one of these services, it runs the number of the incoming call against that huge list of scam numbers. If it finds a match, the incoming call is shut down before it reaches you.
Hiya reported that for the first quarter of 2018, the hottest “area code of the quarter” used by scammers was 214 of Dallas. The area code is home to many airline headquarters, and a popular racket in that period involved scammers utilizing a 214 number to pose as a travel agent to convince victims that they had won a trip.
3. You could always block the numbers one at a time.
Blocking numbers might be a workable choice if you have no plans for the rest of your life, since it can be pretty time consuming. It won’t completely stop robocalls, but if there’s a particular number that keeps calling your iPhone or Android phone, it’s fairly easy to block it forever.
On iPhones, go to your recent calls and tap the blue information icon to the right of the number you want to block. You’ll see “Block this Caller” at the bottom of the screen.
For Android, you pretty much do the same thing: Go to the Recents section of the Phone app, long press on the pesky number and choose “block.” On some Androids, you’ll also be given the option of reporting the number as spam.
4. Your carrier may help you ― or charge you.
A few help, and a few will only if you pay them.
AT&T offers its Call Protect and Mobile Security services free on all postpaid lines. It doesn’t completely block spam or telemarketer calls but identifies those calls as suspected spam and gives you the option to block those numbers in the future. Users can manually block any numbers they’d like and report numbers to help improve the database.
Sprint offers a Premium Caller ID service for $2.99 a month that identifies phone numbers not in your contact list. It flags robocalls and spammers and assigns a “threat level” to give you an indication of how suspect the call might be. Sprint doesn’t automatically block any calls; you could say it strongly suggests you might not want to answer the phone sometimes.
T-Mobile has a Scam ID and Scam Block program free for all postpaid customers. A program with enhanced services is available for $4 a month.
Scam ID automatically identifies known nuisance callers when your phone rings; you don’t have to install or sign up for anything. To turn on Scam Block, dial #ONB# (#662#) from your T-Mobile phone.
Verizon Wireless’ Caller Name ID program costs $2.99 a month and identifies suspected junk calls and lets you block or report those numbers. (HuffPost’s parent company, Oath, is owned by Verizon.)
The FCC has asked that the major carriers step up their game and respond to consumer requests to block robocalls. But it remains the No. 1 complaint that the agency receives.
4. Know that you might actually want a robocall or two.
Not every robocall comes from someone trying to scam you, and many might not even be unwanted. For instance, your dentist may use a robocaller to remind you of your upcoming appointment, or your child’s school may robocall you to alert you there’s a flu epidemic going around.
So not all robocalls that should be blocked.
Third party call-blocking apps work like this: A blacklist is a basic access control mechanism that allows everyone access, except for those on the blacklist. The opposite of that is a whitelist, which gives no one access except those on the whitelist.
It’s important to know which robocalls you want the app to let through.
5. Some phones are smarter than others.
Surprise: iPhone users get more scam calls than Android users do — 29 percent more in March 2018, according to YouMail. (About 3.1 billion robocalls were made that month alone.)
YouMail says the issue is how the iPhone’s iOS handles blocked calls, which makes it difficult for blocking apps to fully implement their blacklists for blocked calls or whitelists for calls that should go through. If you have an iPhone and want to use a third-party app to block unwanted calls, you have to enable it in your settings, giving the app caller ID permissions before it can work. Here is a step-by-step guide.
You can also buy an even smarter phone. Samsung’s recent Galaxy S and Note smartphones and Google Pixel and Pixel 2 automatically flag suspected spam calls in the phone app as they come in. In the Google phones, the entire screen turns red to warn you if a known spammer is dialing you.
Even on your less-smart smartphone ― Android or iOS ― you can put your phone in do-not-disturb mode and allow phone calls only from numbers in your contact list. Of course, this requires that you be meticulous in keeping your contacts current or you most likely will miss some calls that you want to get. And what if it’s a headhunter with a new job offer or that old college boyfriend looking you up?
6. Don’t ever let on that you are a real human.
Blowing a whistle or swearing into the phone is not only futile in terms of deterring calls, but it also plays into the hands of scammers and robocallers. Don’t say anything. Don’t even answer. Just let it go to voicemail. If you do answer, don’t push buttons, even if the recorded voice promises that doing so will prevent more calls.
Absolutely never say “hello.” The silence on the other end of the phone is actually a computer gathering information about you — yes, simply from your “hello.” Even a cough (or dare we say, whistle) will signal to the computer that the 10 digits it just dialed is an active line answered by humans.
And if that sweet woman’s voice asks if you can hear her, never answer “yes.” She may be a computer trying to capture an audio of your “yes” as an agreement to a purchase of something.