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What are robocalls and how can you stop them?

Ever get a call from a random number, answer it, and then hear an automated message on the other end offering you a new car?

This is a robocall, and it’s a menace to society. Some people get robocalled multiple times a day. That’s not surprising considering the US FCC recently revealed that US consumers receive 350,000 of robocalls every three minutes – and nearly half of them are scams. While it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever be able to get rid of robocalls altogether, there are ways you can slow them down.

What are robocalls?

According to the Federal Communications Commission, a regulatory body that oversees radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications in the US, robocalls are defined as “calls made with an autodialer or that contain a message made with a prerecorded or artificial voice”.

They’re often associated with telemarketing and political campaigns – though that’s only permitted when the calls are made to landlines, as calls to smartphones first need public consent. Robocalls can also be used for public-service or emergency announcements. Forty-seven per cent of the time, however, robocalls are scams trying to phish personal data like credit card info.

Robocalls are therefore pretty much universally despised and should be stopped. “If there is one thing in our country right now that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans, it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls,” said Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman, in June.

Are robocalls illegal?

It’s a grey area. Currently, telemarketers must obtain your consent prior to robocalling you, but you can block these calls by adding your name to the official Do Not Call list. As for scam robocalls, including ones that use caller ID spoofing, these are obviously illegal. The FCC recently banned spoofed IDs from texts and international robocalls, and it’s allowing phone companies to block robocalls.

The FTC, a regulatory body focused on US consumer protection, has also filed suits against some robocall perpetrators. Last year, it fined one spammer $120 million. The House and Senate have also passed legislation that would require US carriers to authenticate every call. In other words, there are strategies in place – and coming down the pike – all designed to directly curb unwanted robocalls.

How can you stop robocalls?

There are a few tools at your disposal, thankfully.

Manually block numbers

Android and iOS both offer the ability to block calls, by manually adding numbers. It’s useful if the same number keeps calling.

  • iOS: Go to your phone’s call log under Recents > tap the information icons next to each call entry > Scroll down to Block this Caller.
  • Android: Go to device’s Phone app > Tap Call history > Tap a call from the number you want to block > Tap Block/report spam.

Carrier call-blocking apps

The major wireless carriers all offer apps that let you block spam calls or at least mark them as suspicious.

  • Verizon’s Call Filter app: Detects and blocks spam calls. For $2.99 per month, you get extra features, like custom blocking lists.
  • AT&T’s Call Protect app: Standard caller ID warnings and call blocking features. For $3.99 per month, you can get reverse number lookup.
  • T-Mobile ScamID: An automatic caller ID warning service available to all customers on monthly plans.
  • T-Mobile Scam Block: Customers also use this T-Mobile feature to screen calls. Sign up online or by dialing #662# on any T-Mobile phone.
  • Sprint Premium Caller ID: Sprint doesn’t have a free call screening service, but you can pay $2.99 per month to use this app.

Third-party call-blocking apps

There are alternative call-blocking apps in the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. These are made by third parties and require a subscription to use, but they offer a range of features, including spam call blocking for fiber landlines.

Do Not Call Registry

The FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry is strictly for telemarketing calls. You can sign up here. You can also report abusive calls here.

Is that all you can do?

Google Call Screen

If you own a Pixel, you have one more option: Google offers a machine learning-powered call screening service that answers potential robocalls, interacts with the caller, and sends a transcript to you. It’s called Google Call Screen.

  1. Make sure you have latest version 24 of the Phone app.
  2. When someone calls, tap Screen call.
  3. Google Assistant will help you screen the call and will speak on your behalf.
  4. You’ll see a real-time transcript of how the caller responds.
  5. You can answer or end the call at any time.

Google’s Caller ID and spam protection features are on by default. But you can find them under Settings > Caller ID and Spam.



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