Unwanted phone calls and text messages continue to surge, no matter what efforts lawmakers and regulators take to curb them. In the first four months of this year, call-blocking service YouMail reports, more than 12 billion robocalls were made to American homes. That’s about 4 million every hour, and a steady increase from last year. Live calls from telemarketers have also continued to increase.
Why? Sadly, the answer is that they work. It costs scammers and spammers only a few dollars per day to simultaneously blast tens of millions of calls with autodialers. Senders — many of them con artists — spend about $438 million per year on robocalls. Those calls generate more than 20 times that amount in income, almost $10 billion a year.
The crooks generating the calls easily hide their tracks. Calls may travel through a maze of networks. They often display on caller ID screens with phony “spoofed” numbers that may appear to be local or from trusted businesses and government agencies. And they are changed frequently on purpose.
It’s nothing personal. Spammers often don’t know who owns targeted numbers, or even if the numbers are active. But no doubt you’ve been targeted, and you will continue to be. So how do you defend yourself?
You can try not picking up. But the calls that reach your voicemail greeting could flag that yours is a working number — and ripe for future calls.
For more ways to protect yourself, visit AARP's Scams & Fraud page.
Here’s a list of do-it-yourself defenses I use that have dropped the automated and live spam calls received by more than 90 percent.
- Answer with silence. When you say hello or anything else, automated voice-activated calls launch the robocall recording or transfer you to a call center, where a live operator angles for personal and financial information. But saying nothing usually disconnects these calls within seconds, with no robo-message or callbacks from that phony number. If it is an unsolicited “live” caller, wait for that person to speak to break the silence. If you don’t recognize the voice, hang up.
- Try a “not in service” recording. Using a portable tape recorder and a microphone attached to a handset, I copied a “this number is not in service” message during a callback to a scammer’s spoofed number. Since it’s cued, I sometimes play that recording — again, saying nothing — when answering calls before they go into voicemail in hopes my number will be removed from spammer calling lists. So far, I have not gotten a single callback from those incoming numbers.
- Trap ’em with an app. Smartphone users have plenty of options that flag and block some fraudulent calls and text messages. Some services are free; others cost a few bucks per month.
Customers of AT&T can use Call Protect, Verizon Wireless provides Caller Name ID, Sprint offers Premium Caller ID, and T-Mobile has Scam ID and Scam Block. You can also buy apps like YouMail and RoboKiller that will filter calls for a few bucks a month — or for free in the case of Youmail.
Another freebie for virtually every landline user: Press *77 to block “anonymous” and “private” numbers, then deactivate it anytime with *87.
To block individual numbers that get through on an iPhone, open the phone app, tap the circled “i” icon to the right of the spam number that called, scroll down and tap Block This Caller. For Android smartphones, open the phone app and tap the calling number, select Details, then Block Number.
- Know which calls to avoid. The most common calling cons are pitches that promise to reduce debt and credit card rates or to get you preapproved loans; offer free or low-cost vacations, time-shares, home security systems and medical supplies; or come from government and utility company impostors.
- A dropped or “one-ring” call is a common ruse to prompt a callback. Beware of area codes 268, 284, 809 and 876, which originate from Caribbean countries with high per-minute phone charges.
Robocalls tend to be highest on Friday and Tuesday, and the most frequently targeted numbers are in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Birmingham, Ala., and Miami.