Robocalls can feel like a constant battle: on one side are people behind these annoying telemarketing calls who continue to outsmart the people on the other side — government agencies, cellular carriers, technology companies and you and me.
If robocalls are so universally disliked, why do they continue to exist? Obviously, robocalls work, and someone out there is gaining from them. But hasn’t someone found a way to drop them by now? Are they really effective enough to merit billions of cold calls every year?
Well, the debate gets fiercer by the day. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai described the public as “fed up” with robocalls, and he wants to make blocking these calls easier. Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly recently stated that “‘robocall’ is not a bad word,” and there should be leniency for robocalls from debt collectors.
Here are three reasons robocalls keep working, followed by five things you can do to stop them.
1. Answering the phone triggers more calls
The phone rings, you answer it. What could be more natural, right? The problem is, answering the phone can signal robocallers that you are “alive.” This number works, and someone will respond. Imagine some stranger putting a checkmark by your name. Now you’ve been added to the “call-all-the-time” list.
2. Robocallers adapt, spoof numbers and mimic voices
A skilled human telemarketer uses sales tactics to coax strangers into spending money. This kind of sales requires persistence, and sometimes a telemarketer will call a prospect back, over and over, using new tactics.
Because robocallers are basically just computers, they don’t have this human ability. However, they use artificial intelligence to adapt: Robocalls can “spoof” phone numbers, tricking your caller ID into thinking it’s a local area code or even a known number.
Worse, robocallers have started to collect voice recordings of the people they call. Culled together, these recordings can be used to imitate a familiar friend or family member. Such limitations can make you think that an emergency or time-sensitive opportunity is coming from a trusted source. The technology is still new, but scammers are testing this ability… well, as we speak. The details of this particular scam sound like science fiction, so it’s vital to know what they’ll be capable of in coming years.
3. Most robocalls are perfectly legal
Telemarketers have avoided serious penalties for decades because all they’re doing is making a phone call. Unless they threaten you or misrepresent themselves, telemarketers have a lot of legal leeway. The Do-Not-Call Implementation Act helped consumers cut down on telemarketers in 2003, and there have been basic rules in place since the early 1990s, but calls still get through — especially from predatory callers whose operations aren’t exactly legal.
The real quagmire is when robocalls come from overseas; such international calls can be hard to track and nearly impossible to litigate. So even if a robocall isn’t “legal,” you may never know its origins.
5 things you can do
1. Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers
The vast majority of robocalls come from random-seeming area codes. If you don’t know anyone in Nebraska and you weren’t expecting a call from someone traveling there, don’t pick up. You can also ignore “Unknown” or “Unlisted” numbers.
These days, if someone wants to get a hold of you, they can leave a voicemail or just text. There are so many ways to get in touch, you have no obligation to pick up the phone if you feel uncertain about the caller.
2. Join the National Do Not Call Registry
In theory, signing up for the Do Not Call Registry should protect you from telemarketers and robocalls. In a perfect and respectful world, adding your name to this free government index should be enough to stop those telephonic solicitations for as long as you live.
It’s an imperfect solution, of course; calls still go through, mostly from dubious or international sources. But it should radically cut down on your intake. The process is simple, and long-suffering targets will be grateful to know that this service exists.
3. Use the blocking services provided by your carrier
Telephone companies have generally treated telemarketers and robocalls with kid gloves. But each cell carrier also provides tools that can help you block known fraud and spam.
Each carrier calls this something different, and some services cost a little extra, but if you’re serious about ending robocalls, this is a handy defense. AT&T’s “Call Protect,” Verizon’s “Call Filter Free” and Sprint’s “Premium Caller ID” are all examples of anti-spam services.
4. Block individual phone numbers
Most smartphones make it easy to block a number. Once that call comes in, you can press a button that says “Block this Caller” (iPhone) or “Block/Report Spam” (Android). You can go through your call log and block the number retroactively as well, or unblock it if you realize you actually want to receive calls from that number. You can also set “Do Not Disturb” on both iPhone and Android phones, which will prevent people from calling you at certain times.
5. Use an app
Okay, downloading an app is probably the last resort, especially if you have to pay for it. Nobody wants to subscribe to something that prevents ongoing harassment that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. But many of these apps are also very useful, such as the well-reviewed Nomorobo app.
Kim Komando is a nationally syndicated columnist who writes about technology and related fields. For information on Kim Komando on today’s digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks, visit her at Komando.com.