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By Mallika Mitra
December 31, 2020
Money; Getty Images

From automated calls claiming your car warranty has lapsed to recorded messages informing you of a "great deal" on an upcoming cruise, chances are, you've gotten a robocall. They’re super annoying, and sometimes, super dangerous.

Because we live in a world where our phones are on hand nearly 24/7, these calls are pretty hard to avoid. In October of 2020 alone, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received just over 17,000 complaints about unwanted calls and texts.

These calls can come from legitimate companies looking to sell you something, but if they don't have your consent to call you—i.e. you signed up for a promotion and gave a business your phone number—they're illegal, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (There are some exceptions, like political and charitable calls.) Many robocalls, though, come from bad actors, who want to steal your money or personal information.

Whether a robocall is a tried-and-true scammer or just a telemarketer desperate to make a sale, you're probably wondering how you got on his list—and how you can get off it.

Here's how to stop those pesky calls for good.

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Why do I keep getting robocalls?

Robocalls are far too common—if you have a phone, you’ve probably received one (or 100).

Some scam campaigns try to hook anybody they can with autodialer technology that randomly churns through numbers, or targets specific area codes.

Others may have a little more information to work with when they reach out to you. These scams sometimes target certain demographics, says Eduard Bartholme, an associate bureau chief at the FCC. Like when Medicare issued new cards in 2019, and scammers pretending to be Medicare representatives tried to get elderly consumers to fork over money for fake ones.

Because of the many data breaches that happen each year, a scammer might also have access to intimate information, like your home address, or even the names of your family members, that they can use to tailor their approach. (If you've ever been a victim of a "spoof call" where someone hijacks a number from a local hospital, or jail, and claims to need money for your brother/uncle/second cousin thrice removed, you already know how scary this can be),

Phone companies like Verizon are doing their part to try to stop robocalls. The TRACED Act, which was signed into law in early 2020, requires companies to do more to recognize and block calls before they reach you. It also gave the FCC the ability to put stronger enforcements in place, like increasing the financial penalty for robocall abusers. Since spoofing calls can be especially dangerous for customers, as scammers can impersonate everyone from an elementary school to a government entity like the IRS, the TRACED Act also requires companies to implement something called "STIR/SHAKEN" standards, which forces phone providers to confirm a caller actually owns the number they're calling from—and not hacking into it.

Companies have until June 2021 to implement these changes, and since the pandemic has thrown a wrench into basically everything, it’s hard to be sure how much of an impact the TRACED ACT has had so far.

How to tell if a call you’re getting is real ... or a robocall

The FCC has been working to empower phone companies to do more proactively to block calls before they reach consumers, Bartholme says. Most recently, that means using algorithms to keep those pesky—and potentially dangerous—calls from getting to you.

So what does that mean for consumers? Talk to your phone providers and ask them what options are available, like AT&T Call Protect and Verizon Call Filter, which screen and block incoming spam calls. Some cell phones, like Google's Pixel, will automatically tell you if an incoming call is likely a scam.

There are also apps designed to flag calls as potential scams and stop them, have them ring silently or send them to voicemail. Some can also block calls based on area code or location of the incoming call, send the caller a prewritten text or help you file an FTC complaint, according to the agency. A trade association for the wireless communications industry called the CTIA has lists of call-blocking apps for Android, BlackBerry, iOS (Apple) and Windows.

New methods to combat robocalls are always being developed. Transaction Network Services, which designs robocall protection software, is rolling out "branded calling" for some carriers, says its Chief Product Officer Bill Versen. This would help people confirm the identity of random, incoming phone calls. So if you get a call from a local health department with COVID-19 test results, and you're unfamiliar with the number, your instinct may be not to answer it. With branded calling, the caller ID would identify them as the health department, along with some context like “Your COVID test results.” Versen expects this feature to be widely available within the next year.

How To Stop Robocalls

Call-blocking tools from mobile and landline carriers are doing their part: In a 2020 report, the FCC found that billions of unwanted calls are blocked each year, often at no cost to consumers. Third-party apps like Hiya, Robokiller and Nomorobo are good options for unwanted calls carriers miss.

In general, experts say, it's best not to answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. While you may be in the habit of picking up, listening to the automatic message and hanging up, this tells the caller that your number belongs to a real, live human being — and that they should keep trying to reach you (again ... and again.)

Instead, let it go to voicemail, listen to the message and decided whether or not to call back. Don’t automatically call back a number they give you, either. Instead, verify the number on their website, or, if they claim to be calling from a bank or utility provider, check your most recent bill.

If you do pick up and the caller claims to be a company you do business with (like your bank) or a government entity, thank them for the call, hang up, verify the number and call back. And don’t share any personal account information willy-nilly.

“Your bank gave you your account number, they’re not likely to call you and ask you to repeat it back to them,” Bartholme says.

Should I add my phone number to the Do Not Call registry?

While the National Do Not Call registry, which is maintained by the FTC, is a useful tool, it only stops telemarketers. Scammers, who are responsible for the vast majority of unwanted calls we receive, are not following that list.

Still, it takes just a few seconds to add your name to the list, so it's probably worth it. You can do so by heading to donotcall.gov or by calling 1-888-382-1222 from the number you want to register.

“That list is a tool to keep the sort of ‘good’ companies—the legitimate companies—from calling you with offers and other things,” Bartholme says.

What about spam texts?

"Robotexts" can also be dangerous (and annoying).

Don’t click on any links from an unknown texter, as scammers can load malware on your phone or take you to a fake website and ask you to enter personal information.

Also, keep in mind that while many legitimate companies have the option for you to reply “STOP” to stop receiving texts, responding to a scammer (through text or call) just confirms that they’ve reached an actual person. Instead, block the phone number.

Many of the apps you can download to prevent robocalls (like Nomorobo) also help block robotexts. You can also filter and block messages right on your phone — Apple and Google have guides for how to do this on an iPhone and Android.

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