Choose Your Weapon in the Robocall Wars

Category: Telephony

Are you sick and tired of having your dinner interrupted by Rachel from Card Services? 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 recently published 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.” According to First Orion, a company that provides call-blocking software, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones in 2019 will be robocall scams.

Americans received about 50 billion robocalls in 2018. That works out to more than 136 million calls placed every day, or an average of 200 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.

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 some users are reporting that the next version 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 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 "Choose Your Weapon in the Robocall Wars"

(See all 35 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Paul Friedrich
27 Mar 2019

If your phone company (other than cell) subscribes to it, ask them to apply NoMoRoBo to your number. It is free and many carriers (other than ATT who sells most of the robo lines) will allow it. The phone rings once and goes dead. It's not without issues. Callers like Apple and medical providers, like Aetna Pharmacy, who use robo lines can't get through. I give them my cell number or ask that they use email.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

I have a landline that was part of my triple-play from Comcast. Comcast had SPAM call blocking, but you would still hear the first ring. When I cut the cord with Comcast (reduced to internet only), I had to find a solution for the landline. I chose MagicJack, which is only $35/year. MJ has an optional feature for call blocking. The caller is prompted to enter a random number, and if they do, the call will ring at my home. Robocalls cannot respond to the "press this number" request. Our phone now only rings once or twice a week, which are legitimate calls from real people. I highly recommend it! The landline problem has virtually been solved for us!

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

I pay for my phone to use for my needs. It’s my bill and yet I am being held hostage by these robo and solicitation calls. It’s wrong I pay for my convenience and yet have to use caller ID to decide if I can use my own phone!

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

Until two years ago, I was super annoyed by robocalls to my cellphone. Then, I downloaded an app. from the Google Play Store called "Should I answer?" It has been the best app. I have ever had. It blocks all calls that are not in my contact list.

I hardly ever hear it ring, unless of coarse it's in my contacts. Those annoying calls go to voice mail and after that, I can decide what to do, either delete them or call back if it's an important call. I just tweaked a little bit with the app. settings, and that's all.

I also tell people that need to get in touch with me, to give me their number and I write them in my contacts so I can receive the calls. That's it!!!! End of story. Maybe we all should try it. That little green Octopus is a blessing. As for the robocall problem, I don't think it will go away any time soon...

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

We have an answering machine with caller ID. We let it ring and wait to see if a message is left. A real person will leave a message. And if it is a robo call selling something or phishing, we simply delete the message. If you answer and tell them off, it only tells the caller that you will answer, and your number is put on another list. Let it go to voicemail and stop running every time the phone rings. What did we do when we had only one phone in the house and our number was one on a ten-party line? New is not always better.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

Nomorobo has worked great for me.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

My cell phone is a dumb as rocks flip phone (no butt dialing) on a prepaid plan. I keep the phone turned off unless I'm going to make a call (rarely) and disabled voice mail and text messaging so the misbegotten phone scammers can't run up my phone bill (besides, anyone who wants to talk to me can TALK to me). I also have GPS and caller ID turned off. I almost never give this number out.

My home phone is actually a cell phone that connects to regular landmine phones. Being a cell phone weeds out most phone spammers since robocalls to cell phones are illegal: pretty much only the scammers ignore the law. I also avoid giving out my home phone number to avoid keeping it off spam lists as much as possible. I normally get one spam call once every month or two although I got a flood of them this month (relatively speaking; I got two). Since I'm only charged a fixed monthly fee for unlimited local and long distance calls, I kept the answering machine activated.

I own my phones, they don't own me. If my home phone rings at an inconvenient time for me, I let it go to the answering machine. If the call is important, I'll get a message and can reply at a more convenient time.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

I let my landline-provided voicemail screen ALL calls (unless I see a friend's name or number on my caller ID and pick it up...). Robo-calls will usually not wait past the 4th ring that my voicemail answers on and they hang up. (if it is not important enough to leave a message, it is NOT important for me to answer). When I recognize a known soliciter I don't like on caller ID? I will sometimes answer, press the 3 (to get a live person online) and then let loose with a tirade of obscenity (something about what they should do to themselves..). That will often get my number removed from future attempts.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

18 months ago I turned on “Do not Disturb” in iPhone Settings.
There currently is no perfect solution.

For each contact I wish to hear from when phone is locked I set “Emergency Bypass On” in Ringtone selection.

When I set up new contacts I decide if they will ring when phone is locked.

All others go to voicemail/recents where I block then delete.

Pros - no robocall interruptions in last 18 months while phone is locked.

Cons - a couple times a year I get a call when phone is unlocked while reading Bob Rankin email 😀

Definitely not for everyone, but works for me so far.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2019

@Ken McInnes - I also have concerns about missing an actual important call at night from family or friends. Here is what I do: On my iPhone, I have “Do not Disturb” set up to automatically occur during my chosen night hours. Then, I have an exception set in place in the “Do not Disturb” settings to allow calls to ring ONLY if they come from people in my favorites list (there are other exception options, such as full contacts list.) Granted, this doesn’t take into account calls from, perhaps, a hospital or police, but in my case, I feel the likelihood is that an emergency call will come from a family member’s number, so I’m not overly concerned.

Posted by:

28 Mar 2019

Bob I frequently get calls that show up as SCAM LIKELY in the caller I.D.
First of all, why would any scammer deliberately label their calls as such, and more importantly,
who in their right mind would answer such a call?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The "SCAM LIKELY" indicator is probably coming from T-Mobile.

Posted by:

28 Mar 2019

Two things here. First, if the area code and first three numbers are the same as my number I never answer the call. If people check the numbers on their call list they will see that it is very rare that someone you know has a number with the same area code and first three numbers as yours. Try it. Second, I got an e-mail from something called Android Lane with an article containing detailed instructions as to how to set up fake phone number so people wouldn't know who was calling! How stupid was that on their part!!

Posted by:

28 Mar 2019

I'm with Lou. "Should I answer" is the best I've found to stop those pesky unwanted calls. I ran my virus and malware on it to make sure it was clean. Pasted it with flying colors. It's also free and easy to install. No junk pop-ups either. I'm a happy camper now. BTW.... my phone is an Android.

Posted by:

Cory McIntyre
28 Mar 2019

All of the above suggestions are great - unless you use your cell phone as your business phone. I can't afford to not answer the phone yet the robo calls are so annoying!

Posted by:

Bernard Gallivan
28 Mar 2019

Here in the U.K. I use a device from TrueCall that sits between the wall socket and my handset. It allows through all numbers it recognizes, automatically zaps known scam numbers and only rings those unknown callers who prove they are not robots. It has revolutionised my life.

Posted by:

John O
28 Mar 2019

As many others have mentioned don't answer the phone. I used to try to block them but as it has been mentioned that merely tells them it is a "good" number.

Posted by:

29 Mar 2019

Private cell and home numbers...I let the voice mail fill up, never check my messages...every call I get goes to voice mail, they cannot leave another voice message. Occasional 'block' a constant caller who just cannot move on. I report most calls I do not know as 'Do not call'...Only pick up on callers I know.

Posted by:

Jillian S
30 Mar 2019

Today I got five recorded calls from "Apple" telling me something was wrong with my Apple products. The messages were left on my answering machine (I have a landline). I have never had any Apple products. Earlier this week I received several calls "in answer to your request for information" about back pain, knee pain, etc. I have never requested such information from anyone. But legitimate recorded calls can be also annoying (though less frequent). I get calls from my health insurer to inform me about their house calls program.

Posted by:

30 Mar 2019

Here in the UK we've been plagued for years with calls purportedly from Microsoft, from BT (the national telephone network) and others claiming to be my ISP. I just ignore them but they ARE a nuisance (not least because I only use landline and don't have an answerphone facility set up).

More worrying, particularly for those of a nervous disposition, are calls purportedly from HMRC (the UK equivalent to the IRS) claiming that "an Arrest Warrant has been issued", quoting a reference and insisting I contact my "Case Officer" or dire consequences will result. This is clearly a scam; HMRC does not contact individuals in this manner.

I treat these calls with the same contempt that I do to other nuisance calls, but it is little wonder that thousands of people are scammed with large financial losses because they are fearful of the consequences if they ignore such calls.

Dialling 1471 (to obtain the caller's number) more often than not gives a quite fictitious result, even more annoying than "number withheld". It really is a national (indeed, international) disgrace that there appears to be no means of putting these callers out of business - or the will to do so.

Posted by:

Ken T
01 Apr 2019

The only thing worse that getting a robocall is when they use your phone number as the 'spoof'. In addition to the robocalls themselves, I started getting irate calls from people who *69'd their robocall and started screaming "stop calling me!!!" I contacted AT&T fraud dept (my wireless carrier) but since the calls didn't originate with AT&T there was little they could do. They've died down -- they obviously moved on to a different # to spoof. Ain't technology wonderful.

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