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How to fight back against Robocalls

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Along with arriving at the airport to find out your food, carry-on, and actual seat cost extra–robocalls are right there at the top of the list of modern-day aggravations. 

You might be driving down the road, making dinner, or trying to get your dog into the car for his vet appointment when your phone rings and either an “unknown” number, an 800 number, or a number with a bizarre area code flashes on your screen. 

(Where on earth is area code 222?) 

Someone wants to clean your rug, clean your credit, or possibly extort something from you posing as a government agency, letting you know that your social security number was detected in “suspicious” activity, or that you need to call some number immediately to discuss your tax situation. All of a sudden you went from getting a few random calls to a handful in a year, to several (or possibly even dozens) of these calls a month. You dodge calls. Let’s face it, if ET phoned home at this point you probably wouldn’t even pick up. It’s enough to make you want to go off the grid.

If you are fed up, like most of us, and you don’t want to take it anymore, you are probably wondering four things:  

  • Is this harassment legal? 
  • Why me? 
  • What can I do to fight back? 
  • Are lawmakers doing anything? 

We will answer those questions for you and hopefully make your day a little saner.

According to the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer report website, if you are getting a lot of calls from unfamiliar numbers with a recording trying to sell you something, chances are it is indeed a scam or an illegal call. There are some robocalls that are allowed under FTC rules without your permission, such as political candidate calls or charities seeking donations. The site warns of “spoofing” which is when scammers fake the name and number that show up on your screen, making it look like the call is from a government agency like the DMV or a local number with your same area code.

Why me?

You might feel like you’re being singled out, but you can take comfort in knowing that we are all receiving these miserable calls, and there has been a noticeable spike in the frequency of them as well. The FCC says they get over 200,000 complaints about robocalls each year, making this the number one complaint they currently receive. Robocalls have even interrupted members of Congress in the middle of hearings! Which is probably the best way to call (no pun intended) attention to this harassment.

It is distressing to note that the percentage of spam phone calls has jumped from 3.7% in 2017 to 29.2% of total calls in 2018 — and by the end of 2019, it may well rise to half of all calls. According to the FCC website, “some private analyses estimate that U.S. consumers received nearly 4 billion robocalls per month in 2018.” Part of the reason for the sharp increase is because the technology necessary to spam us is cheap and easy to make thanks to something you probably never heard of called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allows con artists to make millions of automated calls. 

But I’m signed up on the National Do Not Call Registry

Well, that works for legitimate businesses that can only solicit you if you’re not on the list. Scammers do not care if you’re on the Do Not Call Registry, so it’s a bit worthless in that regard.

Seasonal Scammers

Like President’s Day with its mattress sales, and Father’s Day with its Dads and Grads gift ads, Tax Day brings a rash of fake IRS calls. The scammers behind these calls know you’re on high alert to anything tax-related, so they play on your anxiety and try to rope you into clicking on a website or calling a number that will get you mired up in a scam. If you suspect a call is from the IRS, let it go to voicemail. Chances are it is not legitimate. The IRS cannot call a taxpayer without first notifying him or her by mail about an issue related to taxes. The IRS’s website states that it will never threaten legal action or contact the police for the non-payment of taxes. 

Year-round offenders will pass themselves off as various government agencies (DMV, Social Security, FBI, Federal marshalls, etc.) warning you that in order to straighten out some matter you need to call them or log on to their website. 

How to Fight Back

Use the blocking services provided by your carrier

Every carrier, whether it’s Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile, to name a few, provides tools to help you block spam and fraud. Find out which services are offered, whether you need to pay a little extra or whether there is some way to activate the protection you may already have. These links may help you conquer some of the spam:

When in doubt, screen your calls

Why is this one so important? Because answering your phone triggers more calls. If a live person picks up, it signals robocallers that you are ripe for the picking. Imagine some scammer putting a checkmark by your name–and you are now added to the “call-all-the-time” list. 

There’s an app for that!

These are 5 highly-rated, well-reviewed apps you can install on your phone to combat robocalls:

  • Hiya: Caller ID and Spam Blocker (Free) Android/iPhone
  • Nomorobo Robocall blocking (1.99/month) Android/iPhone
  • Robokiller: Spam Call Blocker (2.99/month) Android/iPhone (Read more about this lethal Robo Killer below.)
  • YouMail Voicemail and Spam Block – basic service is free for Android/iPhone, $5.99/month for YouMail Plus and $10.99/month for YouMail 
  • TrueCaller: Caller ID and Spam-Blocking App (Free, or $2.99/month for premium) Android/iPhone

Help for your landline

Call Control Home

This tiny device identifies and protects your landline from telemarketers and robocallers. It comes with a companion app for your smartphone. 

Price: $159.99 

Waste their time!

Ethan Garr, the co-founder of the RoboKiller app spoke about ways it is fighting back against robocallers. He and his team broke down one of the main objectives of the robocalls, and that is to make money off scams. So he figured, wasting their time loses them money, hitting them where it hurts. He designed the app to not only block scammers and robocalls but also answers those calls with Answer Bots that talk back to the spammers and waste their time. That’s fighting fire with fire.

Or, do what this guy did.

What is our government doing about this disturbing epidemic?

SHAKEN/STIR

No, this is not James Bond ordering a dry martini as he heads off to the Baccarat table to flirt with hot double agents–SHAKEN/STIR is a protocol aimed at tackling robocalls. SHAKEN/STIR stands for Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) and the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) standards. This technology digitally validates the handoff of phone calls passing through the complex web of networks, allowing the phone company of the consumer receiving the call to verify that a call is from the person making it. The FCC is mandating the implementation of SHAKEN/STIR by January, 2020.

Congress is also taking action to diminish the robocall epidemic. According to an article in ABC News, “Those annoying robocalls are one step closer to being a thing of the past. The House of Representatives passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement Act (TRACED) that increases fines and requires phone companies to take a bigger role in stopping robocalls. Fines for robocalls would increase to $10,000 per call if the bill becomes law.” 

The bill stipulates that phone companies must improve caller ID, which will make it harder for spammers to impersonate real people, government agencies or businesses. Those phone companies will also be obligated to offer robocall blocking features for free to all their customers. Supporters of the legislation hope it will pass the Senate and be signed by the President in the next few weeks. 

Ultimately, in modern times the enemies we face out there are often nameless, faceless nemeses, and it can make you feel vulnerable and unnerved knowing your need for privacy and peace and quiet are up for grabs. But because these phone calls are pestering everyone across every demographic, something is finally being done to combat the harassment. As an article for Politico put it, “Robocalls have seemingly done the impossible: Unite a toxically divided Washington.”

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