Here are the best ways to block robocalls

Here’s one thing we can all agree on: Robocalls are annoying and intrusive, and we want them to stop!

Despite years of congressional hearings, prodding from the Federal Communications Commission and assurances from the telecommunications industry that it’s working on solutions, our phones keep ringing and ringing and ringing.

According to YouMail, which makes a robocall blocking app for mobile devices:

  • Americans were bombarded with an estimated 48 billion robocalls last year, an increase of 57 percent from 2017. Thirty-seven percent were classified as scams.
  • Between January and April of this year, more than 20 billion robocalls have been made — about half of them were scam-related.

“We are where email was 15 years ago, where half of all the messages that came in were spam and your inbox was useless,” said Alex Quilici, YouMail’s CEO.

To deal with customer backlash, the major wireless carriers are using new call-filter technology. They also rolled out apps to screen and block robocalls. Despite these well-intentioned efforts, the problem continues to grow because robocalls are such a cheap and easy way for criminals to target massive numbers of potential victims.

You can't trust caller ID any longer

The average American now gets 150 or more robocalls each year, based on YouMail’s data.

Some robocalls are legitimate and important, such as a reminder about a doctor’s appointment or an alert about a flight delay. But to deal with the flood of bogus calls, a lot of us (myself included) won’t answer if we don’t recognize the number displayed on the caller ID.

Robocall scammers need you to answer; they can’t steal your money or personal information if they can’t talk to you. So, they’ve developed a devious trick: They manipulate the number that appears on caller ID to make it look like it’s coming from your area code or local prefix – or both.

It’s called “neighborhood spoofing” and according to a new report from the AARP Fraud Watch Network, it works. The survey found that most people still use caller ID to determine whether they take a call:

  • Only 18 percent said they would take a call from a toll-free number.
  • More than half (59 percent) said they are more likely to answer a call from a local area code or an area code where family or friends live (44 percent).
  • More than a third (36 percent) are more likely to answer a call with an area code and prefix that matches their own.

“It's so easy to spoof the number and pretend to be somebody you're not, that caller ID is not a reliable means of finding out who's calling anymore,” said Doug Shadel, AARP fraud prevention expert and author of the report. “The vast majority of scam-related robocalls now have spoofed numbers that display the local area code, even when they’re placed somewhere else in the U.S. or even outside the country.”

Aaron Foss, who created the Nomorobo robocall blocking service, says 20 percent of all robocalls are now neighborhood spoofed, and he expects that percentage to go higher because the deception works.

Fear generates a higher response

Robocall messages are designed to get you to act quickly, without thinking. That’s why so many of them use fear tactics, such as “You’re facing jail time for missing jury duty,” or “Your Social Security number has been compromised.”

AARP found that people are more likely to respond to a threatening message as opposed to one that promises a reward, such as “You won a contest,” or “You qualify for a lower credit card interest rate.”

While 42 percent of those surveyed said they would respond when the call promised a reward or money, more than half (51 percent) said they would likely ask for more information when the call involved negative consequences or a fear-based message.

Government action is needed

Ninety percent of the adults surveyed by AARP said they want the federal government to do more to reduce the number of fake and misleading robocalls.

Congress is trying to tackle the problem: Last week, the senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act) that would direct the Federal Communications Commission to develop rules that require telephone companies to provide an effective way to authenticate calls and allows them to block spoofed calls before they reach the consumer.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a proposed robocall rule at its June 6 meeting that would:

  • Allow phone companies to block unwanted calls to their customers by default.
  • Permit phone companies to implement technology that would enable consumers to block calls not on their own contact list.

While this is a bold proposal, it would not require phone companies to take action, it would simply allow it. So for now, you’ll need to do a few things on your own to deal with the deluge of unwanted calls.

What you can do right now to block robocalls

You can’t stop all robocalls, but there are some effective ways to fight back.

The major wireless companies all provide free and paid services that can alert you to suspected robocalls or block them, if you want. Here’s what’s free:

Third-party apps are also widely available and often free. They’re not perfect, experts say, but they’re the best tools available right now.

These apps include: HiyaYouMailRobokillerTrueCaller and Nomorobo (Nomorobo charges $1.99 a month for cellphones, but it’s free for Internet, or VoIP, phone lines.) There isn’t a lot you can do for traditional landline phones, except block individual phone numbers.

Consumer Reports suggests a few more steps you can take:

  • Join the registry: If you haven’t done it already, add your home and cellphone numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. This won’t stop scammers, but it will tell legitimate telemarketers you do not want to be bothered.
  • Block it: When you get an unwanted call on your cellphone, take the time to enter it into your list of blocked numbers.
  • Create a robust contact list: Make sure it includes the names and numbers of doctors, service providers, friends or anyone else you might want to talk to who is not likely to get spoofed. That way, if they do call, their info will show up on your caller ID.

TIP: If you don’t recognize the number, let the call go to voicemail. That’s what I do. If it’s a robocall, never call back, just delete the message.

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