March 3, 2023

Robocalls 101: What are they and how can I stop them?

Robocalls 101: What are they and how can I stop them?

5.51 billion robocalls were made in January 2023, which equates to an astounding 20 spam calls for every person in the United States in a single month.

Given the consistent increase in robocalls over the past few years, it’s not surprising they topped the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s list of consumer complaints yet again in 2022. The National Do Not Call Registry Data Book for Fiscal Year 2022 reports that the FTC received over 1.8 million complaints about scams and spam calls throughout the fiscal year.

Fortunately, there are ways you can fight robocalls and take back your privacy and peace of mind. Read on and get to the bottom of the following questions:

  • What are robocalls?
  • Why do you get robocalls?
  • What laws protect you from robocalls?
  • Why haven’t your attempts to stop them worked?
  • How can you stop robocalls for good?

What are robocalls?

When you answer the phone and hear a robotic voice or a pre-recorded message, you’ve answered a robocall. Many robocalls are a form of spam phone call, which is an unsolicited, irrelevant, and/or unwanted communication that goes out to a mass group of people.

Although there are non-invasive, legal robocalls — like an automated appointment reminder from your doctor’s office — other robocalls can be dangerous, as they aim to steal information from unwitting consumers.

Robocalls of the spam and scam variety are sent from numbers the recipient doesn’t recognize. The callers are non-personal in that their spiel usually applies to a wide range of people; by being vague and avoiding specifics, spammers increase their chances of luring many people into the same trap.

The FTC puts it simply:

“If you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, it's a robocall.” Source: FTC

Are robocalls illegal?

Although robocalls of any kind can be annoying and invasive, not all of them are illegal. Before we look at the different types of dangerous robocalls that you should look out for, it helps to understand the difference between legal and illegal calls.

Legal robocalls

In some circumstances, robocalls can actually be helpful. They might notify you of a flight cancellation, remind you of an upcoming appointment, or alert you to potential fraud in your bank account.

In order to be legal (in most cases), a robocall must meet these criteria:

  1. The caller must identify the source of the call with a phone number or address that the recipient can use to return contact. In some cases, the recipient must also “opt in”.
  2. Legitimate robocallers are prohibited from calling numbers on the national Do Not Call Registry, which is a list of phone numbers whose owners do not wish to be contacted for sales calls. Businesses are required to purchase these lists before making robocalls and are prohibited from calling the numbers that appear on them.

There are some exceptions to these criteria, like when a legitimate robocall contains emergency information. In cases where it’s crucial that certain information reaches the recipient, their prior consent is not legally required.

It’s also important to note that certain types of robocalls that would be illegal to send to mobile phones (like political messages or charity calls) are legal to send to landlines. 

Illegal robocalls

In contrast to legal robocalls, illegal robocalls are inherently dangerous and can target anyone. Regardless of the rules the FTC and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) put in place, illegal robocallers are not concerned with following them. Though these spammers and scammers may employ different tactics, their end goal is the same: to steal from consumers.

A non-emergency robocall is generally illegal when the recipient has not given prior consent. Although lack of consent is what makes the call illegal in the first place, it’s not what makes robocalls dangerous; robocalls become dangerous when they trick the recipient into revealing personal information that scammers can use to steal their money or even their identity.

Spammers and scammers who are found guilty of illegal robocalls can be hit with serious penalties including heavy fines and public condemnation. Unfortunately, robocalls come from around the world, which means many scammers aren’t subject to or perhaps even aware of the laws against them.

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Types of illegal robocalls

In order to protect yourself from illegal robocalls, you need to know what you’re up against. Legal robocalls — appointment reminders, prescription medication updates, school closings, etc. — are usually expected and/or harmless, so you don’t have to worry about spotting them.

Let’s take a look at some of the different types of illegal robocalls that you might receive, so you can learn to recognize the signs and shut down the scammers.

Banking and credit card scams

Whether they want to sign you up for a new card or warn you that an account has supposedly been breached, banking and credit card scams can be extremely dangerous. If you receive a robocall from a bank, credit card company, or financial institution, never respond without first calling back at a verifiable number. If you qualify for a card or have an issue with your account, you can easily find out by calling the company or checking online.

Student loan scams

Thanks to the confusing nature of student loans, borrowers are prime targets for fraudulent robocalls promising to alleviate their financial burden. If you get a call about your student loans that didn’t come from the provider, you can go ahead and ignore it.

IRS scams

It can be scary to get a call from the IRS demanding immediate payment for an outstanding balance, but it’s much less frightening when you know not to take it seriously. Scammers and spammers like to impersonate powerful entities like the IRS because it gives them an air of authority that their targets find intimidating, making it easier to pull off the ploy.

In reality, the IRS has stated that it will never call to demand immediate payment, ask for financial information over the phone, or prevent people from questioning the amount they owe. If you get a robocall claiming to be from the IRS that does any of these things, hang up the phone immediately.

Cruise and giveaway scams

Unexpected robocalls that sound too good to be true almost always are. If you get a robocall claiming you won an all-inclusive cruise or a weekly check for life but you don’t remember entering a giveaway, it’s likely because you didn’t — which means you’re being scammed. Never give these callers your personal information.

Tech support scams

Robocall tech support scams can be especially dangerous for business owners, but they can affect anyone who does online banking or keeps sensitive information on their digital devices. Tech support scammers impersonate tech companies like Apple or Microsoft and claim there’s a problem with your computer, tablet, or other device, hoping you’ll give away personal information or download malware that they can use to spy on or even actively control your tech.

This is another case in which it’s highly unlikely that the company will reach out to you by phone call before sending you another form of communication. If you’re suspicious that you’re being scammed, hang up and call the company at a verifiable number to find out if the original call was legitimate.

Debt collection scams

Debt collectors are not legally allowed to harass you with robocalls — and you’re not legally obligated to directly interact with them. If you make it clear you don’t consent to the call, the debt collector is required to stop calling you. If they refuse (whether they are legitimate debt collectors or not), consider recording future calls for evidence of harassment.

Why do you get robocalls?

Robocalls are everywhere, and everyone is a target; that means it’s a perfectly normal (albeit invasive) occurrence to receive one. There are several different ways in which robocallers may get ahold of your number:

  • Your number was sold to scammers: If you give out your number when you sign up with a website or mailing list, make sure you know the source is trustworthy. Some shady website operators sell this type of information to scammers.
  • Scammers scoured your social media profiles: It’s not uncommon to attach a phone number to a social media account, but think twice before you do. It may seem like your privacy settings protect you, but it’s still possible for scammers to steal your number from your social media profiles.
  • You were an unlucky auto-dial: Robocallers tend to aim for quantity over quality, and many use a computer to auto-dial numbers at random. Unfortunately, they sometimes land on yours.
  • Your information was public: Some people need to have their phone numbers listed for work purposes. If you’re a public figure, small business owner, or someone else who has to list a phone number online, you may be at a higher risk for robocalls.

What laws protect you from robocalls?

Between the FTC, the FCC, and other sects of the U.S. government, there have been several laws and regulations enacted with the hope of curbing illegal robocalls. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet had the sweeping effect needed to make life difficult for scammers.

Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA)

The TCPA was designed to limit robocalls and prerecorded messages from telemarketers, debt collectors, and other entities known for their use of robocalls. The Act prevents unsolicited robocalls from being sent to residential phone lines, cell phones, and numbers on the Do Not Call Registry.

Being that it was enacted back in 1991 — before cell phones became one of the most significant aspects of our culture — the TCPA could not have prepared the public for the new forms of scams that would eventually plague mobile phones around the world. The TCPA became slightly more effective with the introduction of the Do Not Call Registry, but for reasons we’ll touch on below, the Registry has limitations.

Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act

Signed into law at the end of 2019, the TRACED Act aims to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to prosecute those who place illegal robocalls. It requires network providers (like T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, etc.) to use a number authentication system to help users understand who is trying to reach them. It also created more severe penalties for illegal robocallers, and it set the stage for the STIR/SHAKEN framework.

Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) — (STIR/SHAKEN)

The TRACED Act introduced STIR/SHAKEN, a set of standards designed to combat caller ID spoofing. Mandatory for voice service providers, this legislation was built to restrict robocallers’ ability to hide or manipulate their identities.

Why most robocall blocking methods fall short

Despite the legislation detailed above, many scammers remain stubbornly undeterred. Although there is hope for more comprehensive reform in the future, the current legal barriers are not enough to take down the robocall problem alone. That’s why it’s important for individual consumers to understand how to protect themselves from robocalls.

While there are some basic steps you can take on your own to reduce your risk for robocalls, they are generally not fully effective. Even if you combine them all, there may still be holes in your defense strategy. Here’s why:

  • Do Not Call Registry: The issue here is that the Registry is for legitimate businesses. Scammers aren’t registering their “businesses”, and they certainly aren’t paying to access a list of people they aren’t allowed to call. The Do Not Call Registry will only stop calls from legitimate telemarketers.
  • Reporting to the FTC: Although reporting robocalls helps the FTC build its database and can potentially protect people, you would have had to receive the call before you can report it — so it’s not exactly a proactive defense.
  • Blocking numbers: Similar to reporting robocalls to the FTC, blocking numbers directly through your phone is a reactionary response and not a preventive measure. Additionally, as we’ll discuss in the next section, it doesn’t stop spammers from continuing to call you from different phone numbers.
  • Contacting your phone carrier: Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the issue, there’s not much that phone carriers can do to help the problem. They can comply with telecom regulations, but they generally can’t do anything about international scammers.
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The issue posed by caller ID spoofing

One of the biggest reasons these robocall blocking methods aren’t very effective is caller ID spoofing. Sometimes called “neighborhood spoofing”, this occurs when spammers manipulate the way your caller ID displays their calls.

Scammers will often spoof their numbers to show up as a local call, mimicking your area code and sometimes even the first few digits of your own number. The idea is to trick recipients into thinking the call may be coming from their kids’ school, the family doctor’s office, or another trustworthy local institution, increasing the odds that the target will answer. In other cases, calls just show up as “No Caller ID”, “Unknown Caller ID”, or another phrase that masks the caller’s number.

These calls are difficult to trace because they don’t lead back to the right sources; if a call is spoofed to look like it came from your doctor’s office, there are few leads to follow when you find out it didn’t.

Additionally, even blocking a spoofed number can be problematic. Answering a call from a spammer is a bad idea because it shows them your number is active, but blocking the caller may do the same thing: If your number is suddenly unable to be reached, it alerts the robocaller that you blocked them, at which point they can call you from a different number — over, and over, and over again.

Hopefully, new laws and updated tech, coupled with better cooperation between the government, phone carriers, and third-party providers, will lead to safer airwaves. Until then, it’s important for individuals to stay educated and protect themselves with the help of a trusted spam-blocking app like Robokiller.

How to protect yourself from illegal robocalls

Robocalls of any kind can be a nuisance, but illegal ones can be even more dangerous than they are annoying. Fighting back can help you protect your family, your assets, and your peace of mind. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself from illegal robocalls.

Know the warning signs

Spammers and scammers who use robocalls are crafty, but they’re much easier to identify when you’re familiar with the red flags. If you get a robocall that displays any of these warning signs, you may be the target of a scam:

  • Pressure to act immediately: Illegal robocallers know that time is their enemy, so they want you to take action right now — before you hang up the phone and have time to think about it (and realize you’re being scammed). 
  • Intimidation and threats: Sometimes robocallers will resort to intimidation and threatening language to shake you up and keep your attention. Legal robocalls and legitimate companies will never do this.
  • Demands for specific or unusual forms of payment: If a scammer tries to get you to send them money using a strange payment method such as a prepaid gift card (especially if they’re posing as the IRS or another trusted entity), that’s as good as simply telling you they’re trying to scam you. 
  • An inability to answer questions: Any legitimate robocall will state the reason for calling, the action the caller expects you to take, and a way to contact them to discuss the situation. If there is no way for you to ask questions or seek clarification, you’re probably not dealing with a legitimate caller.

Protect your information

There are many ways for your personal information to get out, and as we touched on earlier, sometimes it happens when you unknowingly give it out to the wrong people. Be careful when you create new social media profiles, and think twice before you post your phone number anywhere online. If you are going to share personal information like your phone number, do your research and make sure the person or business you’re sharing it with is trustworthy.

Download a spam blocker app

While the tactics we’ve talked about here may reduce your chances of being victimized by illegal robocalls, the only way to prevent them from reaching you (aside from not using your phone) is by downloading a high-quality spam blocker app. 

Fight back against robocalls with Robokiller

As with any other product or service, spam blocker apps vary greatly in quality and effectiveness. There are many robocall blocking apps out there, but choosing the right one can make all the difference. 

RoboKiller represents the gold standard in robocall blocking, and it comes with all the necessary spam-blocking features to help you pull the plug on robocallers.

With Robokiller, you get:

  • 99% effective spam call and text blocking
  • Reassurance in knowing Robokiller has prevented $600 million in losses to phone scams
  • Audio fingerprinting, machine learning, and real-time screening
  • Block and allow lists (global and personal)
  • Hilarious Answer Bots that waste scammers’ time

Silence the robocalls and start living spam-call-free™ right now by downloading your free 7-day trial.

Additional robocall resources

The more you know about the illegal robocall problem, the more prepared you are to protect yourself and your family from spammers and scammers. Be proactive instead of reactive, and check out the following links for helpful info and resources.

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You’re one step away from a spam-free phone (and a little poetic justice, thanks to Answer Bots).
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