Stemming the Robocall Surge

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No one manages to avoid them. They come in a flood, sometimes dozens in a single day. Even if you ignore them, they’re annoying. Is there anything that can be done about robocalls? 

Yes, although you probably can’t eliminate them altogether. There are some strategies for minimizing their intrusion into your daily life, however. 

First, remember that robocalls are almost always fraudulent. They attempt to get your information, financial or otherwise, to scam you out of money. The variety of schemes to heist your funds is endless, including that the call is from the IRS, Social Security, or local court systems. None of those entitles collect any money that is due them by calling you from a number listed as “Unknown” in Caller ID. The other trick— using a local number, and perhaps impersonating a local business’s telephone number—is astonishingly easy to engineer.

We all know by now the coping strategy of just not answering calls from numbers we don’t recognize. If you use a cell phone, both Android and Apple now have ways to automate this. On an iPhone, go to Settings > Phone > Silence Unknown Callers. If an incoming call isn’t in your contacts, it will go straight to voicemail. The only downside is that if you get a call from a legitimate business not in your contacts list (for example, grocery store curbside pickup) it will go right to voicemail. If it’s time-sensitive (we will substitute item X for item Y unless we hear back from you), you might miss it, but if you’re desperate to stop robocalls, this is a valid option.

Both iPhones and Android phones allow you to block a number. This is not very effective in dealing with robocalls, as the scammers always pick a different number to impersonate. Emotionally satisfying, yes, but ultimately ineffectual.

Another method: check with your cell provider. The larger ones have apps you can install and/or subscribe to. Some of these services have a monthly fee, though most are free. The best of these stop the robocall before it rings your phone, but even the lesser ones flag calls with labels like “Potential Spam” or “Robocaller.”

If you still have a landline, it’s harder to block spam calls. The older technology makes blocking robocalls difficult for the phone companies. With the number of landlines declining precipitously overall, there’s not a lot of incentive for those companies to invest in solutions.

Legislative attempts to stem the tide have been ineffective so far. You may remember the Do Not Call registry, a federal effort, where you could register your phone numbers. If a spammer called one of the ones you had registered, they could be fined by the U.S. government. Many were indeed fined, but less than 1% of the fines were ever collected.

The latest effort is the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, or TRACED Act, enacted on January 1, 2020. It requires phone providers to provide free ways to stop robocalls, and also gives the FCC more time (four years) to collect fines from convicted robocallers (previously just one year).

We can also hope that the law of diminishing returns will sound the death knell for robocalling. If no one ever answers a robocall, the scammers will move on to more lucrative opportunities. 

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