Enough is enough with the deluge of unsolicited voicemails and the calls from phone numbers that look like they're from friends but are “spoofed” — or disguised — by crooks who claim to be with the IRS, your bank or the police.
You've tried blocking numbers, to no avail. You've signed up on the National Do Not Call Registry. No difference. You've complained to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Nada.
Despite your frustration, you might want to step up your game since there's been a regrettable resurgence in robocalls.
Call volume came crashing down
"When the pandemic hit about a year ago, we saw the first major drop in robocalls because call centers were closed, but now robocalls are exploding,” says Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, which develops robocall-blocking software.
Robocall volume in the U.S. hit an estimated 5.5 billion calls — an all-time high — in October 2019, then sank to about 2.8 billion calls a month when the pandemic erupted last spring, he says. Lately these calls, many from scammers, have climbed to about 5 billion a month. “Having computers dialing a bunch of numbers is a fast, efficient and extremely cheap way to get to as many people as possible,” according to Quilici, who says scammers need only a small portion of call recipients to take their bait.
Some robocalls are legal
Amid the din, some robocalls are legitimate: the American Red Cross can ask for blood donations just as your doctor's office can remind you of an appointment.
But when it comes to bad actors, keep in mind that mobile apps can beat them back. Also, importantly, the FCC will require voice service providers by June 30 to implement call-authentication technology on the Internet Protocol (IP) portions of their networks. As explained here, the James Bond-sounding “STIR/SHAKEN” authentication enables providers to verify the Caller ID information transmitted matches the caller's real phone number. Already some carriers have implemented this anti-spoofing technology. It was mandated in AARP-endorsed legislation signed into law at the end of 2019. The measure is the TRACED Act, which stands for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence.
A united front
What's more, USTelecom, a trade group, has established the Industry Traceback Group to battle illegal robocalls by identifying the source of the calls and “coordinating with governments and industry to help prevent those calls, and bring to justice individuals and entities responsible,” says Patrick Halley, the trade group's senior vice president of policy and advocacy. The source of an illegal robocall — even one from outside the U.S. — often can be identified in 24 hours, he says.
Illegal, unwanted calls still run into the billions, but the calls reaching consumers are fewer thanks to call-authentication, call blocking and labeling tools that designate incoming calls as spam, Halley says.
AT&T, for example, the largest U.S. carrier, says it has blocked or labeled more than 16 billion robocalls since 2016, including 6 billion last year.
Best practices for consumers
To join in the fight, consumers are urged to:
- Download a call blocker. First, try a free solution to see if it does the trick. No-cost services from firms such as YouMail and Nomorobo are carrier-agnostic. (Nomorobo is free for landlines but $1.99 a month for cellphones.) Your mobile carrier has free tools, too.
- Experiment with call-blocking tools, apps and options to strike the right balance between the calls you want — and those you don't. It may take trial and error to avoid a “false positive,” the term for a legitimate call that is stopped.
- Let a call go to voicemail if it gets through a robocall app and you don't recognize the caller. If the caller claims to be, say, from Citibank, don't call back a phone number left on voicemail. Use a number you know is legitimate, such as one on a statement or credit card.
- Hang up if it's a live person calling, as computer-based robocall systems allow. Do. Not. Engage.
- Learn more from the major providers: at AT&T's Cyber Aware, at T-Mobile and at Verizon.
- Heed the latest advice from the FTC and the FCC.
Help for Consumers
Companies have an arsenal of free and for-a-fee technology to limit robocalls. Here are some offerings.
It says its ActiveArmor protects users on a few levels. “We automatically give our wireless customers essential security features, including network-based, automatic fraud call-blocking and suspected spam risk alerts,” says Adam Panagia, director of global fraud management. Wireless customers may download the free AT&T Call Protect app to customize robocall protection and create a personal block list.
Customers may upgrade to Call Protect Plus for $3.99 a month for features including reverse number lookup for U.S. numbers and custom controls to block additional unwanted call categories. Call Protect Plus is free on AT&T Unlimited Elite and Extra plans, and also includes AT&T Mobile Security, another suite of tools that includes device security and data breach alerts.
Customers have access to a free, powerful solution, says Kathleen Foster, director of core network engineering and services. ScamShield is advanced scam-blocking protection with integrated tools, such as Scam ID warnings, Scam Block and Caller ID. It also supports Sprint customers since the firms merged.
For an extra charge, Scam Shield Premium adds more control over your calls, including sending entire categories of calls directly to voicemail (such as telemarketers or fundraisers), a reverse number lookup for unknown callers, and the option to create “Always Block” lists that live on the network, not just your contact list, so your preferences remain even if you get a new device. Scam Shield Premium costs $4 per line per month, but are automatically included in Magenta MAX plans.
Call Filter lets wireless customers block many robocalls at no cost, says Todd Oberstein, executive director of consumer mobile products. An incoming call may be flagged as “Potential Spam” or stopped from reaching you altogether.
“We have also created lines across our network, called ‘honeypots,’ to identify and observe illegal robocall campaigns, and work with USTelecom’s Industry Traceback Group and other carriers to trace them back to the source and notify law enforcement,” says Oberstein. “We have expanded these numbers in every U.S. state, which has helped punish those who would seek to profit from fraudulent or illegal robocall scams.”
Call Filter Plus ($2.99 monthly for one line; $7.99 for three or more) also includes Caller ID, spam look-up, a personal block list and spam risk meter, he says.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.