Are We Winning the Robocall Wars?

Category: Telephony

Are you sick and tired of having your day interrupted by 'Rachel from Card Services' or 'Jennifer from the Warranty Department'? Despite advances in technology, new laws, and the threat of enormous fines, the robocall problem is getting worse every year. Today's article describes the epic takedown of one Robocall King, the reason why you're getting so many unwanted calls from local numbers, and gives some new tools to fight robocalls. Read on for the story...

Emptying the Ocean - One Robocaller at a Time

Wired's 2019 story "On the Trail of the Robocall King" describes the hunt for the entity responsible for almost 100 million travel-related robocalls. Some very creative sleuthing followed the trail from an office in Massachusetts, to a call center in Mexico, to the Miami home of Adrian Abramovich, the alleged robocall king. Abramovich was using his home computer and off-the-shelf software to make millions of calls on a VoIP line with spoofed caller-ID.

Abramovich's robocalling operation was exposed and he was fined $120 million by the Federal Communications Commission. Of course, that's a sum that will never be collected. And even with Abramovich out of the game, the robocall problem continues to grow. "Shady new kingpins are always popping up," the Wired story laments. And even the FCC admits that “Going after a single bad actor is like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.” Nearly half of all calls to mobile phones are robocall scams.

According to a study done by YouMail, Americans received about 58 billion robocalls in 2019; a 16% increase from the prvious year. That works out to more than 158 million calls placed every day, or an average of 290 per year for every adult. Despite my best efforts to block them, I still get 4 or 5 every day, so I must be above average. According to a recent Google survey, more than two third of respondents answer calls from unknown numbers, with concerns that they could be from a neighbor or loved one.

Tools to fight Robocalls

A shady technique known as "call spoofing" enables the robocallers to make any number show up on your caller-ID screen. Particularly annoying is "neighborhood spam" where the incoming call shows your area code and the first three digits of your phone number. Scammers know this increases the likelihood that you'll answer. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the telephone infrastructure that can prevent number spoofing.

This was made possible by VoIP technology (the tech for making phone calls over the Internet) and embraced by legitimate company call centers, so one general 1-800 number for a business would appear on caller IDs. It didn't take long for this loophole to be exploited by robocall scammers.

My recent article [SHAKEN OR STIRRED?] Blocking Phone Scams and Robocalls, discusses some new telephony standards that enable carriers to verify that a calling phone number has not been spoofed. Read that article to see what T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint offer to help customers block unwanted calls.

That article also gives links to five other tools that can be used to fight robocalls on mobile, VoIP-based and landline phones. I've been using one of those tools, Call Filter, a Verizon app that catches some (but not all) robocalls, labelling them as Spam or Fraud.

Some New Tools to Fight Robocalls

Google's Pixel smartphones have a feature called Call Screen, which uses AI to answer incoming calls. Call Screen uses the Google Assistant to ask who's calling, and why. The response is translated into text on your screen so you can decide whether or not to answer. If it's Rachel from Card Services calling about your credit card account (again!), you can click "Report as spam" and gleefully hang up without interacting with the call.

If you don't have a Pixel smartphone, right now you can only block a number by tapping it in your call history and selecting the "Block number" option from the dropdown list. But newer versions of the Android system's Phone app will include new call blocking settings. Users will have the option to block all calls from numbers that aren't in their contacts, calls that don't include caller-ID, and apparently, pay phones. Pay phones are still a thing? Huh.

For now, it's a classic arms race. New technology and tools are developed to fight robocalls, and the scammers develop new ways to interrupt your day with pitches for fabulous vacations, low interest rate credit cards, and requests for donations to bogus charities.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. What steps do you take to stem the tide of unwanted robocalls? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are We Winning the Robocall Wars?"

(See all 40 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

18 May 2020

I wonder if there is some way to jail anyone who buys something from a robocaller. No money to be made, the problem goes away.

Posted by:

18 May 2020

I've had T-Mobile for many years, I use NameID from them and I get zero robocalls on my iPhone. Zero spam texts. Just none. It can't get better than that for me.

Posted by:

Jeff R
18 May 2020

Comcast and other VoIP services include NOMOROBO which blocks all #s it has determined to be "illegal" after one ring tone on the VoIP line.
We have become used to not reacting to any call unless it rings more than once. They also display the incoming phone # on the TV screen which helps if we happen to be watching TV. A 3rd option also provided by Comcast is a setup called "Anonymous Call Rejection" which blocks all calls that have blocked caller ID display.

Posted by:

18 May 2020

Further to Edward C above:
This is also what I do, following your "old fart" method and also find it works well.
I only say hello, ONCE and as Edward suggests, hang up in three seconds. Some people say hello again and again. This gives the switching software time to switch call to an operator.

Posted by:

Gary Brodock
18 May 2020

My Verizon phone announces the caller. If I hear a name, I know it is in my contacts. If I hear a number it isn't and I don't even move to pick up the phone. If it is an emergency from a friend and it is important, they will leave a message and I will get it.

Posted by:

18 May 2020

iPhones already offer the Call Screen feature.

If a caller's number is not in my contacts list (or a recently called number), the call goes straight to voicemail without ringing. If the caller leaves a message, the phone beeps.

This is the best new feature on a phone in years. And a great example of solving a problem locally that the industry seems unable to fix globally.

Posted by:

top squirrel
18 May 2020

I have a few methods that work.
None of them are that urgent in that I get only 1 or 2 robocalls a month. My landline is nonpublished; that cuts things down a lot.
For the cell, the first mode of attack is to follow a method mentioned above: if you pick up and nobody answers in 2 seconds, hang up right away.
Once I got a call from "Joan" from the "extended warranty department." I used to hang up right away but I let it play out, seeking a live person to annoy. At the end of the recording it said press 2 if you want no further calls from us, I did that and that was the end of it.
If I got a live person I might start by asking them which car did this apply to. After they sputtered a bit I might lure them into an answer, asking is it the Cadillac or the Rolls? Then I'd ask "which year"? If they gave me a figure I'd say, "Oh No, you're too late, I wrapped the Caddy around a tree! You must be thinking of the Rolls. Would you like to know what kind of tree it was? And its year of birth?" As for the Rolls, there is always the Silver Phaeton model and the Silver Mist. And Oh, sorry, I gave you the wrong model (or year, or body style, or drive on the left or right). Anyway, that's the general idea. Lure them in with questions of increasing specificity and them drop them abruptly, saying sorry, I forgot this or that.
Time may be important to them, but if it's no more than a game for you, the trick is to enjoy yourself while irritating the crap out of them. Enough of this and the poor jerk will be so frustrated all he'll be able to do is go home.
You can have more fun with the grandchild arrested, needs bail money scam.
You can ask which grandchild, I don't recognize the voice. (Offer 2 names.) And then, Oh, no, you're the wrong grandchild. It's about time you faced the music and stopped doing things that get you arrested. T consider your being locked up the punishment I couldn't give you and you richly deserved. But for now, I hope your cellmates enjoy that cute little tushy of yours. Assuming it's still as cute as it was last time I spanked you. You can go on and on.... Don't let them interrupt.

Posted by:

Bill Roberts
19 May 2020

For home phone use, I finally found the AT&T CL84107. A call which is not on one of my whitelists goes immediately to the answering system, the phones do not ring at all. Calls from numbers / names on a whitelist behave as expected (phones ring, caller ID is announced, then goes to recorder if we do not pick up). Not having junk call ring has had an actual life changing effect.

Posted by:

Oliver John Fleming
19 May 2020

Well, I often receive scam calls.( Australia has not wakened up yet)
However when I realise what it is I tell the caller his/her mother is a prostitute. It throws them completely off track and confused. I love some of the reactions I get. Try it!

Posted by:

19 May 2020

I use an app called Hiya which alerts most but not all.

Posted by:

19 May 2020

For 6 years, I've been using an app. called: "Should I Answer?" and I haven't had problems with robocalls. There are two versions of it. One is a paid version and the other is called: 'The obsolete Version'.

Don't be discouraged by the name 'Obsolete'. It's free and it works like the paid version, without it's bells and whistles. "Should I Answer?" screens all phone calls and only lets the call go into your phone if you have it in your contacts list. Otherwise, it goes to voicemail and you can screen it later, if you want to. You can find "Should I Answer?" in Google Play and Apple apps.

After you download it, make a few clicks for settings and your off to tranquil days without robocalls. Some times it can ring once, but it notifies you with a rating if it is a potential scam. Other times, it doesn't even ring at all. So your good to go. Just remember to keep up to date the phone numbers in your contacts list.

Posted by:

Ernest Lane
19 May 2020

When I worked, the #1 rule about making calls was "identify yourself first." That was in the days before caller ID; now, that rule caller ID should identify you.

Too often, it doesn't. I get phone numbers, city names, "out of area," "unknown caller," the letter V followed by 14 digits, and even "potential spam." I answer none of them.

Posted by:

19 May 2020

Like a few others above in this list of comments, we use for our landline at home. Our phone service is with Cox and nomorobo works with them just fine. When you set up this service they tell you who they work with. If they see a robocall, we just get one ring then nothing. So we don't even get up until a second ring of the phone. This free service has worked very well for us.

Posted by:

19 May 2020

If you think getting RoboCalls is bad, try being the phone number they're using as a spoof (it has to be someone's!) They were using my number as caller ID. I got tons of very angry people who *69'd (call back) and let their vocabulary get extremely colorful. After a few weeks they moved on to a different caller ID. Until they did, I was getting dozens of calls a day.

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
19 May 2020

Like several others I use Google Voice for calls to my old (previously-landline) number. I get an average of two telemarketing calls per day, but I have Google Voice set to voicemail only. Transcripts of all phone calls are emailed to me, so I can instantly see if it is anything important that I need to respond to. In most cases there isn't even a message -- the telemarketer has hung up -- so I just ignore it. This has worked great for the past several years.

Posted by:

19 May 2020

I must be one of the fringe groups: We 'only' get about one robocall every few weeks. Number spoofing is no big deal for us since our VoIP number is intentionally from a different state/area code. I think we still have nomorobo on the line but I don't even know if it works anymore and don't really care!

Posted by:

20 May 2020

Thanks for this interesting expose' of the robo-callers. Also, the comments you allowed to be posted are helpful.
Later, John.

Posted by:

Jeff Clements
20 May 2020

I agree, with one of the previous commenters, that fines are just a joke (especially since they will never be collected), and honestly think that life imprisonment would be the perfect solution for convicted offenders...

Posted by:

24 May 2020

I keep a boat horn nearby for when they call. It's fairly effective and the number of calls that I get has dropped quite a bit. I guess they don't like getting their eardrums blown out. LOL

Posted by:

08 Jun 2020

I have developed a habit of just letting my phone go into voice mail if I don't recognize the phone number. It seems to be helping because I can go days without getting a spam call. I have come to the conclusion, if they want to talk to me...they can leave a message and maybe I will call them back if it is any interest to me or my family.

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