If you regularly screen your phone calls, keep your ringer turned off to avoid frequent calls, decline unknown numbers, or wait to hear a voicemail before deciding whether to return a call, you’re not alone. As of 2019, more than half of all phone calls go unanswered, according to Alex Algard, CEO of Hiya, a phone spam fighting company. The primary reason people don’t answer calls is to avoid the constant barrage of robocalls. This leads to a lot of frustration when people miss important calls, such as a potential job interview or return call from the doctor.

There were over 58.5 billion robocalls across the nation in 2019. This is almost two times the amount in 2016 (29.1 billion). In March 2020 alone, there were 4.1 billion robocalls — that’s 132.5 million a day, 5.5 million per hour, 1,500 per second, and 12.5 per person.

Robocalls are a type of phone call used by some companies, organizations or individuals that play a recorded message when answered. Some merely play a message, while others provide options to transfer people to a live person. Many of these calls are made by scammers, while others are harmless, yet annoying. As technology advances, the number of robocalls increases. Fortunately, so does the development of technology and tricks to avert them. 

When you hear the word ‘robocalls,’ you may immediately think of scammers that want to trick you into giving out personal information or money. While many are, not all robocalls are illegal scams. 

Legal robocalls include:

  • Political parties looking for support
  • Charities asking for donations
  • Informational calls, such as appointment reminders, automated school messages, flight updates from your airline, and information from your health provider
  • Calls from debt collectors
  • Companies that you’ve given written permission to contact you with a robocall

Illegal robocalls are those that haven’t previously obtained your permission and are trying to sell you something or scammers trying to get your personal information or money. 

Some common illegal robocalls include:

Impostor scams that pretend to be a government agency such as the IRS or even a loved one

  • Credit card or debt scams charging a fee in exchange for aid for credit card or other types of debt 
  • Loan scams asking you to pay an upfront fee in exchange for a loan
  • Prize scams claiming you’ve won a lottery or prize that requires you to pay a fee or share personal information to get the prize 
  • Free trial scams that after the trial ends lock you into a subscription plan with additional costs
  • Travel scams which often are deals that are too good to be true and end up having unexpected extra costs, other strings attached, or that don’t even exist 
  • Charity scams in which they pose as a charity to get donations
  • One-ring scams from foreign phone numbers that call and hang up on you to get you to call back and rack up fees 

Robocallers can get large volumes of phone numbers by buying lists of leads from third-party providers. Your number can end up on those lists when you:

  • call 800, 888, or 900 numbers
  • apply for credit
  • contribute to charity
  • register to vote
  • give your phone number to a business during a purchase or for a contest
  • call a company

Some robocalls also use machines that simply dial random numbers. 

Robocall operations may use small, low-cost phone carriers or computer programs to make many prerecorded calls for little cost. The theory is that out of a large number of calls, a few people will return the call or respond by pressing a number. When someone does respond, they’re patched through to a real person who either addresses the legal purpose of the call or completes the illegal sales pitch or scam. Scammers seeking money may ask you to send gift cards or wire money directly, so it’s harder for you to recover it. 

Since robocalls affect so many people so frequently, many groups are working to combat the calls through legislation. A few government agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communication Commission, not only work against robocalls, but they also have information and resources available to the public. 

In December 2019, President Donald Trump signed the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act into law. This act gives the FCC more involvement in combating robocalls. It also created a group with representatives from various agencies to work together on evaluating resources and policies to help combat the problem. 

The TRACED Act sets guidelines for the FCC to go after and fine scammers more easily. It also allows the FCC to require phone carriers to use technology to verify and authenticate calls at no cost to their customers, evaluate how to prevent scammers from accessing numbers, and assess current approaches to stopping robocalls. The FCC is also required to give regular updates to Congress.

More lawsuits are also being pursued against companies or businesses using robocalls. In January 2020, a case was brought against three people and a call center that had helped the Grand Bahama Cruise Line, LLC, place millions of illegal robocalls. They settled the FTC complaint and are barred from making robocalls in the future. The FTC intends to take others involved to court who did not agree to settle.

There are so many robocalls going out, it’s impossible to prevent all of them forever. But there are steps you can take to reduce the robocalls and to protect yourself and loved ones from falling victim to a phone scam.

Sign your mobile phone numbers up on the National Do Not Call Registry. This is a free service to stop unwanted sales calls from telemarketers and legitimate companies. Unfortunately, scammers don’t abide by this list. So, it doesn’t prevent all the calls or the most precarious ones. Sign up or report unwanted calls at donotcall.gov, or by calling 888.382.1222.

The most basic way to avoid robocalls is to screen all your calls and answer only known numbers. This can be a pain, though, and may result in many voice mails, although most won’t leave a message. To reduce aggravation, enter any important numbers into your phone contacts to minimize the chance of screening an important call. Also, be aware that with new ‘spoofing’ technology, scammers can choose which name or number they want to show up on your screen.

Use technological advances in call-blocking when possible:

Wireless and landline service providers have tools and services to prevent robocalls and spam calls. Visit your account online or contact your provider to see how they can help you prevent these calls.

Phone manufacturers also sometimes include call-blocking or robocall warning technology on their devices. Check your phone’s handbook or contact the manufacturer to find out what services are available. You can also block specific numbers on your phone after they’ve called you. However, some robocallers place calls from many numbers in an effort not to be blocked. 

Many mobile phone apps are available to help with call-blocking, screening calls, blocking likely scam calls, and even to file a complaint through the appropriate channels. Search the app store on your phone to find one that suits your needs. Some are free, while others are paid. So read reviews before downloading. 

If you answer a call that you believe is an illegal robocall, don’t engage or press any buttons to be taken off a list or to talk to someone. Hang up and report the phone number to the Do Not Call Registry. 

Robocalls can be particularly problematic for seniors, who may be more trusting on phone calls or not as familiar with the technology behind them. The AARP offers tips on how to recognize a robocall with key phrases to listen for in some of the common scams targeting seniors, such as health insurance, jury duty and Social Security. These calls are generally looking for money or valuable information like your social security number or access to your Medicare account. To learn more, visit www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2019/recognize-a-robocall.html

Top 10 area codes known for spam calls

(notice that 6 are in Texas) 

  • 214 – Dallas, Texas
  • 210 – San Antonio, Texas
  • 817 – Fort Worth, Texas
  • 512 – Austin, Texas
  • 832 – Houston, Texas
  • 305 – Miami, Fla.
  • 713 – Houston, Texas
  • 404 – Atlanta, Ga.
  • 405 – Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • 407 – Orlando, Fla.

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