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.
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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.
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.
Help for Consumers
AARP asked the three leading companies what they are offering. Here’s a summary.
- AT&T Call Protect blocks all known fraud calls outright, while suspected spam is labeled so users can choose whether to answer. The company says it blocks or labels about 1 billion robocalls a month.
- For a fee, users can download an advanced version of the Call Protect app that includes caller ID and allows users to block, allow or send certain call types to voicemail.
- The company’s fraud team uses machine learning to identify suspicious call patterns and prevent illegal calls.
- AT&T uses automated scanning to identify and help block spam.
- T-Mobile and Sprint cellular plans include Scam Shield, a free set of tools that alerts users when a call is likely a scam and blocks calls the network considers to be more serious threats.
- Its plans now include free caller ID.
- Customers receive a free “proxy telephone number,” a second number to give out when looking to keep one’s main number private.
- Customers are allowed a free number change if their current one becomes a magnet for excessive spam calls.
- Most Verizon wireless customers have access to Call Filter, a free app that automatically blocks what the company determines are likely fraudulent calls.
- Verizon offers Call Filter Plus for an additional fee. The app allows users to create a list of numbers to block. It also includes caller ID, access to a database of 100 million known spam callers, and a visual spam risk meter.
- Verizon has created fake “honeypot” lines to track illegal robocall campaigns and notify law enforcement, says spokeswoman Kate Jay. So far in 2021, the lines have revealed more than 250,000 scams, Jay says.
Joe Eaton is an investigative writer and journalism professor who contributes frequently to the AARP Bulletin.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 23, 2021, and has been updated with information from phone carriers on robocall-blocking technology.