What You Need to Know About Robocalls—and How to Stop Them

Woman using VoIP

If you feel like you’re getting more scam calls than ever, you’re right. And it’s not just you. Americans received an astounding 26.3 billion robocalls in 2018, up a whopping 46% from 2017. It’s hard to fathom, but nearly 50% of all mobile calls are spam.

It’s no wonder only half of all cell phone calls are answered at all. Why answer if it’s just a scammer—live or recorded—on the other end of the line?

From why robocalls are so prevalent to what you can do to stop them, we’ve put together a quick primer so you can face the worst scammers with the very best tactics.

Why are they calling?

If so many of us aren’t picking up the phone, why do scammers keep calling? Because they’re making money—and lots of it. Scam calling has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

A 2018 study revealed 1 in 10 Americans (10%) have lost money—an average of $357 per victim—from a phone scam. The total projected financial loss? $8.9 billion illegally gleaned from 24.9 million Americans.

What are they saying?

From the ridiculous to the panic-inducing, robocalls fall into a number of different categories, but the “free vacation” (the recipient has been “selected for a free vacation” and the caller needs to verify credit card information to receive it) scam tops the list.

Others include credit card debt relief, IRS debt/penalties, past due loans, bogus political campaigns, bank problems (a “hold” has been placed on the recipient’s account(s) and account information is needed), and, our favorite, the “Nigerian prince” who needs money now but will financially reward recipients in the future.

(You may have heard it before, but just in case you haven’t: The IRS will never call you about a tax issue without mailing you first. They’ll also never threaten to contact police or take legal action against you for non-payment of taxes. So if you get one of those calls, hang up immediately.)

How are they doing it?

An increasingly common technique these days is called “spoofing.”

Here’s how it works: Your phone rings. The number is local and looks oddly familiar. You think it’s a friend, perhaps your doctor’s office or a local business. You pick up and it’s…another robocall.

Over half of all all robocalls use this tactic, which enables scammers to camouflage their number by programming it to display as local—sometimes even the first six digits can be identical to your own, your friends, and/or your family.

The Federal Communications Commission received 52,000 complaints about spoofing in 2018 alone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon.

Spoofed number or not, robocalling doesn’t take a team of people. (A single scammer sued by the federal government in 2017 made roughly one billion calls a year.) A robocall computer program simply needs to be set up and run. Each call costs a fraction of a cent and can yield millions of dollars.

So how can we stop robocalls?

Since many scammers ignore the federal government’s National Do Not Call Registry, the Federal Communications Commission is urging phone providers to implement technology to stop them.

Wireless providers are heeding the call, with both free and paid services to block robocalls. There are a number of apps available as well, Nomorobo and YouMail chief among them.

If you’d rather take sweet revenge, RoboKiller doesn’t just block spam calls, it keeps scammers on the line with live-sounding (but previously recorded) drunkards, grumpy old dudes, and even (OMG yes) a guy doing vocal exercises as he preps for an America’s Got Talent audition.

If you have a VoIP phone system (which, packed with excellent features and affordably priced, are perfect for small and mid-size businesses) you can typically enable a call-blocking feature to block incoming calls from specific phone numbers or area codes, saving you from shouting “HELLO HELLO HELLO” into your phone in public and throwing it across a Starbucks. (Not that we’ve ever done that.)

If you do pick up a robocall, never press any keys, say anything, or follow any instructions. (AARP has put together a great list of robocall dos and don’ts here.)

But if you want to turn the tables and waste a scammer’s time (and drive them crazy) with some robot small talk, we definitely won’t stop you. It won’t shut down the industry, but it may help all of us get a few less calls a year.


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