Robocallers have stepped up their game by masking their spam with legitimate-looking phone numbers from the local area. Their nonsense can be amusing at times, such as when you get a threatening voicemail about your impending arrest for unpaid back taxes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s an unwelcome distraction. It’s all too easy for these con artists to harness the power of the internet and make a slew of calls with ease.
For years, mobile spam calls have been an annoyance. I get four to six robocalls per day, and a quick poll of friends reveals that I’m not alone. Every waking moment brings a new barrage.
According to estimates, there will be more than 50 billion robocalls in 2019. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission both say they’re working hard to get a handle on the situation, and significant crackdowns have occurred. However, real-world feedback indicates that things are deteriorating rather than improving, and it is common to feel out of control. The FCC has mandated that US carriers implement a technology that will help combat spam calls. But we’re still a long way from there.
So, if you’re sick of pulling a vibrating phone from your pocket only to see a random, suspicious number, let’s go over some options for fighting back and regaining some peace.
First, I’ll go over some definitions because the carriers make important distinctions between these calls — even though they’re all unwanted and annoying. Verizon’s point of view is as follows:
- Robocallers are automated phone messages that are prerecorded.
- Spammers: Unwanted callers who may call indiscriminately to a large number of recipients; may also include callers to whom you have permitted to contact you.
- Fraudulent phone calls: An entity that is most likely acting maliciously by pretending to be someone they are not.
ONE BY ONE BLOCK INDIVIDUAL NUMBERS
If you want to eliminate robocalls, this is probably a futile effort, but if you have a specific number that keeps calling, you can easily block it from your iPhone or Android phone.
On iOS, go to the Phone app, then Recents, tap the blue information icon to the right of the number you want to block, and then choose “Block this Caller.”
For Android, the procedure is similar: go to the Recents section of the Phone app, long press on the annoying number, and select “Block.”
BELIEVE IN (OR PAY FOR) YOUR CARRIER TO PROTECT YOU.
Most major mobile providers have taken steps to put themselves between you and these bothersome callers. They’ve accomplished this through behind-the-scenes network improvements, such as the SHAKEN/STIR technology, which has begun allowing carriers to verify when a call is legitimate and weed out the many spoofed numbers you’re likely receiving from your local area code. In reality, those calls are most likely coming from all over the world, but robocallers can easily impersonate local numbers.
As part of your wireless plan, all of the major US carriers provide some level of spam filtering for free.
AT&T offers a free service called Call Protect that is designed to block fraudulent robocalls and potential spam risks before they reach you. All you have to do is install the software on your phone. Call Protect will not completely prevent telemarketer calls, but it will display a “nuisance warning” if you receive one. You can also create a personal block list and permanently block callers using the service.
There is also a Call Protect Plus service, which provides caller ID, reverse number lookup, and the ability to block or route calls to voicemail based on category. These extra features cost $3.99 per month, but the main Call Protect service is included as part of your subscription.
Prepaid customers who own an AT&T HD Voice-capable phone can also use Call Protect.
Scam Shield is T-effort Mobile’s to combat annoying robocalls. The free Scam Shield app combines all of T-tools Mobile’s — Scam ID, Scam Block, and Caller ID — so you can easily configure the level of protection that’s right for you. Suspicious calls are always flagged by default. Enabling Scam Block will stop the majority of them from ever ringing your phone. T-Caller Mobile’s ID service frequently displays the information for whoever is calling you, even if they aren’t in your contacts.
You can enable Scam Block even if you don’t have the Scam Shield app. Dial #662# from your T-Mobile phone to do so. Dial #632# to turn it off.
Scam Shield does more than just block bad calls; you can also request a secondary “proxy” number to use when you don’t want to share your phone number. And, if you find yourself inundated with calls, T-Mobile will let you change your phone number for free once a year.
You can upgrade to Scam Shield Premium for $4 per month per line, which allows you to “send entire categories of unwanted robocalls directly to voicemail, such as telemarketers; create ‘always block’ lists; and get voicemail-to-text for at-a-glance access to your voicemails.” (Magenta Max customers get Scam Shield Premium for free.)
Customers can “get alerts when a call is likely spam, report unsolicited numbers, and automatically block robocalls based on their preferred level of risk” with Verizon’s Call Filter service, which is free for postpaid lines.
You can block up to five phone numbers that you don’t want to be contacted by for free. However, blocks expire after 90 days and are ineffective against robocallers whose phone numbers change every day.
More features, such as the ability to create a personal block list, are available for $2.99 per month per line. For $4.99 per month, the Verizon Smart Family plan includes additional features such as parental controls and the ability to permanently block up to ten numbers.
USE THIRD-PARTY APPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF
There are several services available to prevent robocalls from ever ringing your phone, including Nomorobo, RoboKiller, and Hiya. The majority of them necessitate a monthly (or annual) subscription. These services, at their core, rely on a constantly updated list of robocallers, spammers, and fraudsters and use that database to block nuisance calls. (By “constantly updating,” I mean that they identify thousands of incorrect numbers every day.) When a call comes in, the service checks it against the massive list of scam numbers. If it detects a match, the incoming call is terminated before it reaches you.
All of them allow you to keep a personal blacklist of numbers that bother you and a whitelist of numbers that you want to get through. Some work by downloading a separate contacts list to your phone from your regular contacts. However, both iOS and Android have recently given these services more leeway in controlling your phone app and preventing the jerks from ever reaching you. On iPhone, you must enable them in the Settings app and grant them caller ID permissions before they will work. Apple demonstrates how to do so in detail right here.
I’d recommend researching each of these services to see which one appeals to you the most. Customers generally like them all, and they all offer free trials to get started. One of these will eventually be what you need to effectively combat robocalls. It’s simply a matter of choosing your favorite.
Nomorobo offers a 14-day free trial. After that, it’s $1.99 per month. Landlines are free.
RoboKiller: 7-day free trial. After that, it’s $4.99 per month or $39.99 per year.
Hiya: Hiya provides spam ID services in collaboration with Samsung, AT&T, Spectrum Mobile, and others. Individuals can use the free iOS app to detect and block spam; the Premium version includes a database of additional names and more frequent updates. The free Android app includes caller ID and spam detection, while the Premium version includes spam blocking and reverse lookup. Hiya Premium for Android or iPhone is available for a free seven-day trial. After that, it’s $3.99 per month or $24.99 per year.
YOU MUST RELY ON YOUR MOBILE OPERATING SYSTEM TO PROTECT YOU.
Many Android phones, including those made by Samsung and Google, have built-in features for flagging suspected spam calls. If you have a Google Pixel device, when a spammer calls you, the entire screen will turn red, which is an easy way to know to ignore the call if you’re across the room from your phone. On Pixel phones, you can also go to Settings > Caller ID & spam and see spam IDs and filter spam calls by tapping the three dots in the upper right corner of the Phone app. Other phones will have features similar to this one.
Silence Unknown Callers, a new app in OS 13, blocks any callers who aren’t in your contact list, haven’t contacted you, or haven’t texted you. Those calls will instead be routed to voicemail. You can activate it by going to Settings > Phone > Silence Unknown Callers.
TO ONLY ALLOW CALLS FROM YOUR CONTACTS, USE DO NOT DISTURB.
You can set the Do Not Disturb mode on both Android and iOS to allow phone calls only from people and businesses in your contacts list. This is a pretty drastic, sledgehammer solution to the robocall problem, and you’ll almost certainly miss calls that you’d like to have answered. Those calls, however, will go to voicemail, and you can add that number to your contacts list for future use. I’d still recommend this option only if you’re completely fed up, and only if you’re extremely good at keeping contacts up to date.
WHY DO MORE AND MORE SPAM CALLS APPEAR TO COME FROM A LOCAL NUMBER?!
Isn’t it extremely vexing? It’s a technique known as neighborhood spoofing, and RoboKiller has a good explanation of it here. In short, scammers believe that a number that matches your area code (and possibly even the first digits of your own number) will fool your brain and make you more likely to respond. And it adds to the nefariousness of their deception. What if it’s a family crisis? Is it your doctor’s office or a pharmacy?
Fortunately, robocall blocker apps have improved in detecting neighborhood spoofing. RoboKiller claims to have been good at it since its inception, and Nomorobo has also made detecting neighborhood spoofing a priority.
DON’T FORGET TO ENTER YOUR NAME IN THE DO NOT CALL REGISTRY.
Telemarketers are supposed to respect the National Do Not Call Registry. You can add your name to the list by going to www.donotcall.gov. According to the FTC, legitimate telemarketer sales calls should be stopped after 31 days. Contrary to recent rumors, your presence on the Do Not Call Registry never lapses or expires once you sign up. There’s no need to renew or re-add your phone number to the list.
The Do Not Call Registry is only applicable to sales calls. Once you’ve signed up, charities, political organizations, debt collectors, and surveys can still contact you. The same is true for companies with whom you may have recently done business. (You may be able to stop this type by telling them to stop calling you verbally.) Unfortunately, scammers and robocallers pay no attention to the DNC Registry and simply ignore it. Because these robots answer to no one, you’re better off returning to one of the solutions discussed earlier in this article.
NEVER TELL THE ROBOTS YOU’RE A HUMAN.
As tempting as it is to curse at a robocaller or scammer, your best course of action is to leave them unsure whether they have connected with an actual person. Nothing should be said. Do not press any buttons, even if the robotic voice tells you that doing so will prevent future calls. Don’t put your faith or trust in the robot’s voice. If you accidentally picked up, either let it go to voicemail or hang up right away.
COMPLAIN TO THE FTC
When everything else fails and you’re consumed by despair and rage at the never-ending interruptions, you can always report callers to the FTC. They will not pursue every individual complaint, but it is critical to keep the commission informed of the scope of the problem. And, as I previously stated, the FTC does occasionally prosecute some of these con artists.
Even with all of these tools, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to avoid every robocall or spammer. However, it should help to alleviate the avalanche you’re likely experiencing right now. And, hopefully, once all carriers implement call verification, you’ll be able to re-trust your caller ID and answer calls more frequently. But, at the very least, that’s wishful thinking in 2021.