Jennifer Jolly, a USA Today columnist who has written extensively on combating robocalls. She runs the website Techish.com, which focuses on products and strategies to make consumer technology easier for people to use.
Bottom Line: With these gadgets, services and tricks, you can beat robocallers at their own game
You’ve tried and tried to stop those maddening robocalls that hawk lower mortgage rates…pretend to be the IRS claiming that you owe taxes…or promise to remove your computer viruses. Like millions of others, you’ve signed up for the National Do Not Call Registry, set your phone to block individual numbers and maybe even signed up with Nomorobo, which cancels calls from suspect phone numbers after the first ring. And of course, you generally ignore caller-ID numbers that you don’t recognize. But the robocalls just keep increasing. About 4.2 billion robocalls were placed nationwide in August alone, up from 2.9 billion just a year earlier.
Some of these calls are legit, such as automated messages for flight delays and prescription refill reminders or legitimate debt-collection calls. But many are scams meant to draw you in so that a live operator can get on the line and convince you to hand over money or personal financial data. Here’s why robocalls have proliferated and how you can step up your own war on robocallers.
It’s easy for scammers to collect millions of phone numbers, including yours, from online listings. And autodialing software lets con artists ring thousands of lines simultaneously at less than a penny per call through overseas servers that conceal their identities.
The National Do Not Call Registry deters legitimate marketers but has little effect on scammers who are willing to break the law. These robocallers use tricks to make their caller-ID different every time. Sometimes it appears as the number of a local police department or bank. Other times it’s a number with the same area code and local exchange as the intended victim’s, a practice known as “neighbor spoofing.”
If you do pick up, robocall software can detect that a live voice has answered and mark you as a target for further calls. Another devious innovation: When you pick up, you hear an “imitation of life” recording that sounds like an actual person on the other end of the phone. The idea is to get you to engage long enough to transfer you to an operator.
Robocalls will continue to be a problem, and there’s no single solution. But using one or more of the following free or low-cost strategies can greatly reduce the frequency and volume of robocalls you receive.
To block robocalls from a smartphone or any phone using an Internet-based digital phone service such as Verizon Fios, Comcast Xfinity or Vonage…
Get a third-party call-blocking app. These apps can be downloaded to your smartphone, and you also can access them as part of your Internet-based phone service. They combine call-filtering software and vast databases of known bogus numbers to automatically block the calls or divert them to voice mail. Many people have been frustrated with the most popular of these services, Nomorobo, which doesn’t always stop robocalls. If that’s the case for you, try YouMail (YouMail.com). It analyzes each incoming call with “smart blocking” technology that uses historical call patterns, feedback from millions of its users and a constantly updated database of known robocallers before letting it ring on your phone. If the call is flagged as a robocaller, YouMail answers it instead with a recording, saying, “The number you’ve reached is out of service,” which robocaller software can detect so that you are more likely to get removed from calling lists. YouMail does not work with traditional landlines. Cost: Free. The company makes money by selling premium services for $5 to $10 per month that enhance your voice mailbox capabilities.
Use enhanced technology offered by your wireless carrier. Last year, the FCC issued new regulations allowing wireless carriers to intercept, analyze and even block calls to customers’ phones that come from invalid numbers or those that show evidence of “spoofing” (altering the number that appears on your phone’s caller-ID to disguise the robocaller’s real number). Some major carriers provide spam-call protection that lets you block suspected incoming robocalls for free, depending on your wireless plan. Others offer a premium app with more sophisticated caller-ID features for a few dollars a month.
Robocall-blocking apps from the four biggest carriers…
AT&T Call Protect is a free service available to AT&T wireless customers who have HD Voice, a new technology that reduces background noise. Call Protect provides automatic fraud blocking that stops suspicious calls from reaching your phone. For $3.99 a month, you can get Call Protect Plus enhanced caller-ID, which attempts to identify names and locations of callers not in your contacts list, and custom call blocking, which lets you choose the types of legitimate robocalls to allow, block or send to voice mail based on categories such as telemarketing agencies, doctor offices and political organizations.
T-Mobile Scam ID and Scam Block are free services that alert you when an incoming call is likely a scam and/or prevent those calls from reaching you. For $4 a month, you also can get Name ID, which works similarly to AT&T Call Protect Plus, providing more in-depth caller-ID and management of the types of robocalls you want to receive.
Sprint Premium Caller ID costs $2.99 a month and not only alerts you to robocalls but also provides a “threat level” indicator to give customers an idea of how suspicious calls are. Based on the threat level and settings you choose, the service can automatically block numbers or send them to voice mail.
Verizon Caller Name ID is a premium service for $2.99 a month that alerts you if an incoming call is likely to be a robocall and indicates whether it’s a potential scam or a legitimate automated call.
To block robocalls from a traditional hardwired landline phone…
Buy a device or order a service on your landline that screens calls using “Caller Input.” Whenever a call comes in, it is answered by the device or service, and an interactive recording is played that requires callers to enter a digit such as 0 or 1. If they don’t enter this digit (robocallers can’t), they are sent to voice mail or the call is disconnected. If they do enter the digit, the call is put through to you. You can set up a privileged list of callers who automatically bypass the screening. Examples…
Sentry 3.1 Call Screener is a small stand-alone device that plugs into any landline. Callers who do not respond to the interactive message and who are not on your privileged list are disconnected. Available from Amazon.com and many electronics retailers. Cost: About $80.
“No Solicitation” is a service from CenturyLink, a phone company that offers landline phone service in parts of 37 states. The free service screens calls using caller input. Call your landline service provider to ask whether it offers a similar service.