Ring ring! The phone rings (or vibrates)—do you answer it? If you are like most people, you receive countless phone calls and texts from people who are out to get your business or your money. It’s annoying. Some people receive robocalls every single day from the same people. You can hang up on them all you want, but that’s not going to get rid of them—you will likely hear from them tomorrow…and the next day. And what about robotexts? Many people receive these all the time from the same people.
Why do we get so many of these robo-nuisances? The simple answer is that they’re easy and profitable. They cut out actual live-person telemarketers for part of the process—even for legitimate businesses like non-profits and perhaps political campaigns. Other calls from debt collectors and charities are all permissible—fake IRS agents, not so much.
Believe it or not, there’s big money involved in these calls. No matter how much you hang up on them, someone eventually picks up, and then gives up their information—leading to scams. Thankfully, the government, wireless carriers and phone-makers are working on ways to eliminate these nonstop calls.
Using a variety of schemes, robocalls average 10-15 million calls a day and can yield (gasp) $200,000 or more. If a scam robocall operation goes undetected for a year or two, it can soar into the millions. Some of the more common robocall scams involve IRS recordings telling you to call back because you may owe serious back taxes and penalties. Other more recent scams involve Covid-19 scams: contact tracing, stimulus checks, test kits, masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). Still, others are “Imposter Scams.”
Robocalls are annoying at best, and risky at worst. Why do these calls work? Because they are very inexpensive, says Jeff Galak from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. When they eliminate actual people dialing phones (i.e. overhead), the marketers and scammers kick in and can reach millions of homes cheaply via robocalling. It also works because they don’t solicit you directly. Galak says: “If you pick up a robocall from an unsolicited number and talk to the automated system, the caller now knows that there is a human on the other end of the phone and can sell that information to others.” It separates the diligent consumers from the less diligent. Once you pick up the phone, they know you’re home and will follow up with a sales/scam call within the hour. As with many scams, the people most likely to be victims of robocalls are the elderly.
What you can do to protect yourself
Take action to stop or minimize robocalls. Here are a few tips:
- Sign up for the Do Not Call Registry via the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and register your number. Call 888-382-1222 from a number you want to be added to the list.
- Sign up for donotcall.gov and add each number manually.
- Block numbers—most smartphones have a feature where you can click through in the settings and block calls from a number, which means texts as well. It may be a pain, but if you do this for a week or two, you should see a drop in the numbers.
- Stop answering phone calls with unknown numbers—your line will hopefully show up as inactive and they will delete you. Beware of imposters; don’t assume a local call is actually that just because it looks real.
- Don’t respond to any questions that can be answered with a “Yes.”
- Use robocall blocking apps. Two that are recommended are Hiya, which is free to download, or Mr. Number, a subscription service. Both come with caller ID, custom blocking and automatic robocall blockers; they are also integrated with a massive database of robocall reports plus the FTC list.
- Set your phone to Do Not Disturb. Once you activate this in your settings, any incoming calls will be prevented from reaching you. Then, you can customize which calls you want to receive in the future.
- If you find yourself receiving a lot of spam text messages, you can forward the message to number 7726 (which spells “spam”). It may not stop the calls immediately, but will alert your carrier to investigate and hopefully put an end to it.
What phone providers are doing
All four major U.S. carriers offer some level of free spam call blocking. They often offer blocking features, most with monthly fees of $3-$14 per month. Check with them for specific features and policies. If you have an iPhone, Apple has added a feature whereby unknown callers are prevented from calling you.
You can also ask your wireless carrier for help. Detailed information on how to block calls on your mobile device can be found here.
More protections are coming. The TRACED Act, signed into law in 2019, extends the statute of limitations for law enforcement to go after bad actors, increases penalties and requires phone companies to authenticate calls. Because this is a relatively new law, it will take carriers some time to put into action. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Resources: FTC.gov, FCC.gov, Consumer Reports, CNET, Reader’s Digest, Apple, Jeff Galek