Robocalls: what they are and how to stop them

Emotional Man Shouting Holding Smartphone And Shaking Fists Standing On Yellow Studio Background.

If you’re living in the U.S. and have any sort of caller I.D., chances are you don’t answer most unknown calls. The likelihood of the call being a robocall or telemarketer is just too high. But simply avoiding unknown numbers comes with problems of its own. 

This last spring, my wife’s grandmother gifted us her piano—a huge honor. The piano moving company gave us a loose estimate of a day when they would be able to pick it up from Salt Lake City, Utah and bring it down to us in Provo, over fifty miles away. But when that day came, and when they arrived at our house with the piano, no one was home. Even more, I wasn’t answering calls from their unknown number. Stuck at my front porch with a piano, miles from being able to just take it back, they waited to find someone in my neighborhood who knew me to ask to try to contact me. But waiting for me to answer the phone cost them time and money. I have since realized that I can no longer simply ignored unknown numbers, but like many, I’ve been challenged with figuring out which calls are legitimate and worth answering. 

Call Avoidance

A recent Consumer Reports survey found that “70 percent of Americans don’t answer their phones when they don’t recognize the incoming number.” Call avoidance is understandable.  According to YouMail, a tracking company, “Fraudulent robocalls occur 175 million times in the U.S. every day, and ordinary citizens don’t have time or energy to answer and verify every unknown call. The FCC even recommends ignoring unknown numbers as a solution to avoiding the barrage of phone harassment. However, problems arise when daily, millions of people accidentally ignore calls from doctors’ offices about important medical information or other legitimate calls. As fewer and fewer companies are able to survive in a traditional brick-and-mortar layout, more companies are turning to the phone to do business, and if they can’t reach anybody, business goes under. We don’t want to answer every robocall, but we also don’t want to miss a call from the piano mover at the doorstep either. 

Smartphone showing on screen an illegal robocall. Smartphone showing a call from a robocaller on screen

A big question is, why do fraudulent calls still occur in 2019, especially given that laws to stop them have been passed and updated? 

Laws in the United States 

Truthfully, legislators are continually passing and adjusting laws to improve and protect telephone communications, starting with the Telecommunications Act of 1934, to the more recent Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991, to the most recent amendment approved in 2019. Moreover, The National Do Not Call Registry was implemented in 1991 to provide protection to consumers as a method of opting out of telemarketing calls. But if you already are on the DNC Registry, you may have noticed it doesn’t always work. So why are we still being bombarded with these fraudulent calls? 

It’s important to know that laws and regulations have absolutely curtailed fraudulent calls originating within the country. Laws provide a framework for American companies, and they also protect consumers from bad-faith companies calling from the U.S. In other words, if you receive a call from a company verifiably based in the U.S., chances are high that the company is legitimate. Robocalls for solicitation truly are illegal, and a legitimate company in the U.S. won’t use them. And if you are on the National Do Not Call Registry, a legitimate company from the U.S. will not contact you without prior consent.

However, when a scam artist calls from outside the U.S., the laws holding them accountable hold less power—and almost all fraudulent calls now come from outside the country

Spoofing

Despite the majority of fraudulent calls originating from outside of the country, scammers use what’s known as “spoofing” in order to change their phone number to a U.S. number. Spoofing isn’t inherently illegal. In fact, it can be useful for people who need protection from domestic violence and in other scenarios involving law enforcement. In the case where it is used for non-solicitation purposes it’s referred to as “local presence dialing”.  Spoofing becomes illegal when used for solicitation purposes. Unfortunately, since spoofing conceals the original number and location that a call would be made from, reporting a fraudulent phone number to the police or FCC may not fully help law enforcement trace the perpetrators—especially because scammers can call from phone numbers that are already in use. 

You may already be aware that spam can come from in-use numbers, especially if you’ve been contacted by a scammer using your own number. My personal phone number was used last week to call out fraudulently, and I was only made aware because someone dialed back and asked if I was offering a free vacation. Fraudulent calls now often come from numbers that may look similar to the person being dialed, or from a similar area code, since we are more likely to answer from these types of numbers. Additionally, protective call-blockers are less likely to identify these types of numbers as spam.  

Solutions to Robocalling

So, the question still remains, how do we avoid fraudulent calls while still receiving important calls from unknown numbers? The good news: solutions exist. And they are improving. The bad news: most solutions right now aren’t perfect and must be purchased by the consumer. 

Just this last year in 2019, the Federal Communications Commission voted on an amendment to the Telecommunications Act that allows phone companies to regulate and block scammers for their customers. However, phone companies so far have been reluctant to implement anything for their customers without charging fees or without the customer actively opting in. Of course, many phone companies like Verizon or T-Mobile allow you to automatically block up to ten or twenty numbers on your phone, but that option doesn’t really provide any sustainable solution to spam blocking. Presumably, the best solution in the long term would be for phone companies to follow suit with email companies who block spam as part of their service. 

Unknown number calling in the middle of the night. Phone call from stranger. Person holding mobile and smartphone in livingroom late. Unexpected call disturbs at night.

Robocall Blockers

In the meantime, robocall blockers are the best and easiest way to significantly decrease spamming calls, but they’re not all perfect and they’re not all created equal. Competition is plentiful with hundreds of options available, including Hiya, Nomorobo, RoboKiller, YouMail, and Truecaller to name a few. Typically, robocall blockers track the way telephone numbers are being used. For instance, if a single number is making 5,000 calls in a minute, a robocall blocking program will stop it before it even rings on your phone. Robocall blockers also frequently rely on blacklists and whitelists generated by customer feedback. But problematically, robocall blockers that work solely from blacklists and whitelists run a risk of blocking legitimate calls, which could also hurt businesses. 

RoboKiller

As an example, RoboKiller is a robocall blocker that works from these lists as well as internal call mapping systems. Not only will it block unwanted calls, it will play a recording meant to string along the caller. The idea is that the RoboKiller will distract a scammer or telemarketer for several minutes, which would be several minutes that the telemarketer won’t be bothering a real human being. I listened to an example scenario on the RoboKiller website that depicted a telemarketer being tricked by one such recorded message into staying on the phone for over three minutes.  A man’s voice in the RoboKiller recording told the telemarketer that he was auditioning for The Voice and asked the telemarketer if she would listen to him sing his audition song, claiming he would listen to what she had to say afterwards. After singing an out-of-pitch melody, RoboKiller recording then asked for feedback and advice. By the time over three minutes of the telemarketer’s time was wasted, the recording then told the telemarketer that he had to run and hung up the phone.

 This method of call-blocking may seem appealing to someone who wants to exact revenge on fraudulent callers, but it comes with the risk of being employed against the wrong person. I couldn’t help but imagine it accidentally being used on a hospital administrator, stringing them along and hanging up on them while calling about an urgent medical matter. This service also costs money, but at around $20 per year, the price is on par with or less than other similar services. 

Nomorobo

The method that Nomorobo uses appears to be the most reliable, and as noted by Consumer Reports, won the Federal Trade Commission’s first competition to create a robocall service. Like other blockers, it keeps a database of blacklisted and whitelisted numbers. When an unknown number calls your phone, Nomorobo intercepts it after one ring and compares it to its database. If the caller is questionable but not clearly fraudulent, then Nomorobo will simply provide a two-digit number for the caller to enter in order to verify that they’re not a robocall. Since the majority of scammers use robocalls, Nomorobo significantly decreases fraudulent calls getting past one ring. But all calls will ring once before being picked up by Nomorobo unless you manually mark a phone number as okay ahead of time or preemptively block it. 

Nomorobo appears to provide the best method of filtering through calls and ensuring that the right calls get to the right person. Because Nomorobo allows a questionable caller to verify their legitimacy as a human, the service comes with minimal risk of accidentally blocking a call from the doctor. And although the service costs money when used on a mobile phone, the cost is reasonable, at $1.99 per month, or $19.99 per year. 

The downside of Nomorobo is the fact that it may block automated reminders for doctors’ appointments or other automated reminders. But because you have the potential to mark a phone number as safe, you can always simply give the okay to receive robocall reminders from your specific doctor or dentist.

Another downside is that an unwanted call from a real human could still potentially thwart the system. But if you’re number is both on the National Do Not Call Registry and you are using Nomorobo, unwanted calls should potentially decrease from five or more per day to one or two a year. 

Conclusion

In the long term, the best solution would be for phone companies to adopt methods similar to Nomorobo into their services without raising consumer fees, similar to how email companies send spam to a separate folder. The key is making sure that legitimate calls don’t get blocked though. This type of solution would provide the most protection for the most people. But with little financial incentive to do so, the FCC may eventually need to require phone companies to do their part to protect the consumers and engender trust in businesses who use the telephone. 

As fewer and fewer American companies are able to survive the traditional brick-and-mortar layout of the twentieth century, electronic exchanges are becoming requisite for a large portion of the economy. Both consumers and American businesses need the type of protection that can help them become like neighbors again. The economy depends on it.

Just for feel-good sake, enjoy this hilarity of a robocall scammer having his time wasted by a classic pranker:

Justin Duckwitz

Content Writer

Photo of Justin Duckwitz

Justin Duckwitz received his Master's Degree from Brigham Young University in Creative Writing. He writes content, teaches English at Salt Lake Community College, and enjoys backpacking in the wilderness and being with his wife and son.