This week 35 state attorneys general issued a joint letter (PDF) urging the federal government to step up efforts to fight illegal robocalls. They called on the Federal Communications Commission to further strengthen rules to let telecommunications service providers block certain categories of robocalls, specifically spoofed calls.
“Spoofing” allows scammers to disguise their identities, making it difficult for law enforcement to bring them to justice. Just about everyone has received spoofed calls: You see an incoming call from an unknown phone number that carries your area code, and sometimes even the next three digits of your phone number, in an obvious ruse designed to trick you into answering.
“Virtually anyone can send millions of illegal robocalls and frustrate law enforcement with just a computer, inexpensive software, and an internet connection,” the attorneys general wrote in their comments to the FCC.
In response, the FCC said it “is considering taking additional action to empower service providers to block illegal robocalls,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to Consumer Reports.
The Robocall Arms Race
In November 2017, the FCC adopted new rules allowing phone companies to proactively block certain calls. They allowed firms to block calls that are likely to be fraudulent because they come from suspect phone numbers, such as invalid numbers and valid numbers that are not allocated to a voice service provider, among others.
These, however, are the easiest numbers to block, says Gerry Christensen, a telecom expert and CEO of Mind Commerce, a research company that specializes in phone systems and networking technology.
And robocallers have stayed a step ahead of the law, especially with the advent of neighbor spoofing. These robocalls are the most difficult to block because they display a real phone number—often that of one of your neighbors—Christensen says. They are not only tough for humans to detect but also very tough for our technology to detect.
“Current solutions rely upon analytics software and/or artificial intelligence, which can be problematic,” he says.
And as the amount of robocalls increases—4.4 billion in September alone, according to the most recent numbers from YouMail, a provider of voicemail and call-blocking services—so, too, is the pressure to do something about this scourge.
“The robocall problem is out of control, and it’s time for the FCC and the phone companies to take more action, so all consumers have the protections they deserve. We believe the FCC should require phone companies to implement caller ID authentication by a reasonable deadline so that phone companies can stop unwanted spoofed calls from reaching consumers,” says Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.
Telecoms Strike Back
Rather than outright blocking robocalls, many phone carriers have begun to offer their own branded caller ID services, which notify customers if an incoming call could be a scam or a fraud. These services leave it up to the customer to decide whether or not to answer the phone. Other providers may offer more aggressive services from third-party providers, such as Nomorobo, which say they can block robocalls altogether.
Even more robust solutions are under development. One, Shaken and Stirred, is a joint effort supported by the telecom industry. It’s essentially an authentication system that sniffs out incoming calls to ensure that they are legitimate when they reach your carrier and before they get to your phone, says Paul Florack, vice president of Transaction Network Services, a provider of telecommunications services based in Reston, Va.
Though this technology promises to help prevent robocalls, implementation could take years, Florack says. Carriers need to agree to use the system, and it could cost them tens of millions of dollars each to roll out.
Regulators have also begun to get tougher on robocallers who are flouting the law. This year the Federal Trade Commission has announced a number of enforcement actions against robocallers, including a $120 million fine against a Florida-based timeshare marketing operation for spoofing.
However, enforcement is not enough, because many robocall outfits are located overseas and they hide behind digital firewalls that make it difficult for the authorities to reach them, Christensen says.
How to Avoid Robocalls
For now, there are precautions you can take to minimize the number of robocalls you receive.
List Your Phone Number With the Do Not Call Registry
By signing up for the Do Not Call Registry, you can request that your landline or cellular phone number be removed from the call lists companies use. That should help reduce the number of calls you get from legitimate telemarketers and robocallers.
What you should know: You’ll still get calls from organizations with which you have established a business relationship; calls for which you have given prior written permission; calls that are not commercial or do not include unsolicited advertisements, such as school closings, tornado warnings, and other civic notices; and calls by or on behalf of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, which include political solicitations.
And you should realize that many dishonest robocallers ignore the laws and will call you anyway.
Sign Up for Your Carrier’s Robocall Alert Service
Many companies, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon, have introduced services that alert you that an incoming robocall may be from a scammer or spammer. In some cases, such services are free, but for a few dollars more per month you can get a more robust version that can block the robocalls from ringing on your phone.
AT&T, for example, offers a basic free service that customers must enable in order to use. But for $4 per month it offers Call Protect Plus, which the company says is more robust and includes automatic fraud blocking. Verizon offers a screening service called Premium Caller ID for $3 per month. T-Mobile offers a service for no additional charge.
What you should know: According to a recent study by Mind Commerce, a research company that specializes in phone systems and networking technology, the carriers’ systems are able to successfully notify customers of calls that may be problematic. Verizon’s service did the best job, according to the report, succeeding 93 percent of the time. T-Mobile’s service accurately alerted its customers to suspicious calls 90 percent of the time, and AT&T’s service was accurate 86 percent of the time. Sprint and U.S. Cellular have systems similar to Verizon’s, so they were excluded from the study.
Download a Call-Blocking App
Instead of simply being alerted to incoming robocalls, a call-blocking app can intercept robocalls before they reach you, says Mahoney of Consumers Union. Among the providers are Nomorobo, which charges $2 per month for its service (there is no cost for landlines), and free apps such as Hiya, Mr. Number, RoboKiller, and YouMail.
Reject Anonymous Calls
Another option available from some phone companies, phones, and call-blocking equipment is to automatically reject anonymous calls. If you turn this feature on, all anonymous calls are instantly rejected, preventing the caller from even leaving a message.
What you should know: The downside is that this may prevent you from receiving legitimate calls from friends, relatives, or others who, for privacy reasons, don’t want their number and other information showing up on caller ID.
If you receive an unwanted call that you believe is spam or a scam, make sure to report it to the FTC. You can make a report online here. By reporting unwanted calls, you can help the regulator go after bad actors.