If your experience is anything like mine and millions of other Americans, you are getting unwanted calls on your cellphone and at home – by the truckload. Frustrating, annoying, time-wasting – and it goes without saying that you’re probably wondering how you are getting so many and what to do to stem the flow. Notice I don’t say, eliminate them. More on that in a moment.
The reason for the increase is computerization and automation – hence the term “robocall”. Humans are not initiating these calls, internet servers are auto-dialing you. At some point, if you wait for someone to say something at the other end, you will be talking to a person – most likely a person trying to get you to subscribe to some kind of service like “reducing your credit card debt”; free medical supplies from Medicare; you qualified for free solar installation or you won a vacation.
Even more serious are those attempting to extort money from you because they claim they are the IRS and your bank account will be frozen if you don’t pay them immediately.
The dimension of the problem is incredible. The number of such calls in America has accelerated to the pace of 1,000 calls per second and in just one month in the last survey period there were 2.6 billion spam, fraud, phishing calls to mobile phones and landlines. Incredibly, 1 out of every 6 calls placed is from an internet server.
Unfortunately, there is a payoff for the perps on the other end of the phone. The FTC estimated that the various scams bilk their victims of upwards of $350 million a year, with almost 10 percent of that attributable to the IRS fraud calls. So, the solutions? Let’s look at what works and what doesn’t.
What Doesn’t Work:
The National Do Not Call Registry might have made some sense back in 2003 when it was set up by the Federal Trade Commission, because at that time, the bulk of the unwanted calls were originating from boiler room operations and the calls were initiated by humans (in the loosest sense of the term). When a solicitor called – primarily on your landline phone, you were to inform them, “My name is on the Do Not Call Registry”. It worked with some and not with others and was inherently flawed in that it was an opt out system, not an opt-in system.
There were probably some lobbyists telling the agency that they had a right to invade your privacy because “it’s free speech”. Once Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technology made automating millions of calls an hour, not only possible, but incredibly inexpensive (a penny per call) – thus making the old system of boiler rooms obsolete and the “Do Not Call Registry” totally outmoded along with it.
Telling robo-callers not to call you again. Yelling at the dope that comes on the phone after the initial pause that is the telltale sign of a robocall, might make you feel better after venting, but it will do nothing to address the ongoing problem.
Pressing various sequences of alpha-numerics on your phone’s keypad. Urban myth at this point. Doesn’t do anything, if in fact it ever did – and what it does do, is not what you intend.
What Does Work.
This one is so simple, it almost seems too good to be true. Don’t answer any call that you are not expecting. It’s easy to do with your cell phone, but with a landline you’ll want to purchase an inexpensive Caller ID accessory (on eBay or Amazon) and make sure your telco has you set up for Caller ID.
If the phone number is not familiar to you or in any other way indicates that the originating number is anonymous, let it ring – do not pick up the phone! Why? Because a certain number of the calls are not placed for the purpose of speaking with you – the bot that is dialing is merely logging active lines – meaning lines where people answer unsolicited or unknown calls. The automated software dialing program is “casing” you. If you don’t answer the call, your phone number drops off the “suckers” list.
One other thing works over time and has a macro impact on the problem in general – call blocking technology. The best known app is called “Nomorobo”, as in “no more robocalls”. It was the result of a contest sponsored by the FTC to find a means of blocking nuisance calls, and the winner, Aaron Foss, spent a lot more time and effort than the $25,000 prize award. He’s a personal hero and he will be yours when you start using the app.
Nomorobo accumulates data about the phone numbers that are initiating the calls and once they are in the system, on what some describe as a “blacklist”, the calls are blocked. Every time, you and millions of other subscribers add a nuisance number to the blacklist, it renders that number useless to spam dialers. Here is a visualization of the input screen, showing how simple it is to add to the blacklist:
Most home phone service providers (Verizon, Frontier, AT&T) with digital voice or VOIP are compatible with Nomorobo. At the present time, however, if you get phone service from a cable provider, you might not be able to take advantage of Nomorobo or YouMail – another call blocking application, which tells marketers that your phone is no longer in service. The good news is that some of the majors have recently come on line with it like Time Warner, Spectrum and Comcast.
One notorious holdout is Cox Communications. Cox customers have been complaining to them for 3 years and Cox still refuses to incorporate Nomorobo. It might be that they are continuing to extort $10 dollars per month to block a maximum of 30 phone numbers.
With cell providers, nearly all of them have call blocking technology. Some automatically recognize spam calls and in other instances, you can add an app like PrivacyStar to your mobile phone and either place a number on the blacklist or if it already is, a pop up will ask if you want the caller blocked.
Limit the distribution of your home and cell number
- Don’t hand out your number like candy.
- Don’t allow phone apps to store your mobile number. What you have just done is agreed to let them distribute your number to third parties. You can find a list of Android apps here, that by using them, allow your data to be re-distributed.
- Don’t give your number to online surveys, polls or petitions.
- Don’t provide your phone numbers to retailers or other businesses who ask for them in order to provide you a “club” discount card. If they insist on a number, either write 111-111-1111 in the blank or give them a “Google Voice” number, you can obtain here.
- Don’t donate to charities over the telephone. Investigate the charity online and if you find them worthy of a contribution, do so with a secure payment method such as PayPal.
A final sobering note here. None of the above are ultimate silver bullets. This whole national headache of spam calling is like an arms race or spy vs. spy. For example, back to the advice I gave you on Caller ID units as a method of screening your calls. There are a wide array of software based services that spam callers subscribe to in order to display phone numbers on your Caller ID device that are not the real originating number. They are known as “Caller ID spoofing”.
In many cases, the spoofed number will display as a local area code. In order to render spam calls less profitable, you must maintain a situational awareness regarding the number you see displayed. If there is any doubt, refrain from answering.
You can look up the number on a Google or Yahoo search and find out if it was telemarketing or phishing, and by not picking up the phone, chances are that your number will be removed from those active lists we talked about earlier.
Now you know what you need to do – get to it.