Americans received 50.3 billion automated phone calls in 2022 — an imperceptible decline from the 50.5 billion robocalls received in 2021, according to YouMail, a call-blocking and call-management service provider. The company estimates that 41 percent of those calls were placed by scammers. Illegal robocalls include telemarketing spam (automated sales calls from companies you haven’t authorized to contact you) and attempts at outright theft. Prerecorded messages dangle goodies such as all-expenses-paid travel, or they demand payment for nonexistent debts to get you to send money or give up sensitive personal data.
Scammers often use caller ID spoofing to mask their true location, making it appear that they’re calling from a legitimate or local number to raise the odds that you’ll pick up. In a 2019 AARP survey on robocalls, 59 percent of respondents said they are more likely to answer if caller ID shows a number with their area code.
If you do pick up, the robotic voice on the other end might claim to represent a utility, a name-brand company or a government agency. Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service are perennially popular poses, as are phony Amazon calls.
Other robocall fakes might offer you a free cruise, cheap health insurance or a low-interest loan. They might claim you've won a lottery, or tell you to press a particular key to learn more or get off a call list. Pitches for sketchy car warranties have become ubiquitous, accounting for nearly 1 in 5 spam calls, according to call-security firm RoboKiller.
Whatever the message, don’t engage. Doing so can lead you to a live scammer, who’ll pressure you to make a purchase or pump you for personal information, such as a credit card or Social Security number. Even pressing a key or answering a question alerts scammers that they’ve hit on a “live” number, and they’ll call it again and again.
It’s important to note that many robocalls are legal. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows them for some informational or noncommercial purposes, such as polling, political campaigning and outreach by nonprofit groups (including AARP). Your dentist’s office can robocall you with an appointment reminder, or an airline might have news about a flight change.
Illegal robocalls are more common than alerts, reminders and even telemarketing, according to YouMail, making it all the more important to be on guard for automated scams.