October 30, 2017

Robocalls 101: What Are They and How Can I Stop Them? (Updated for 2018)

Robocalls 101: What Are They and How Can I Stop Them? (Updated for 2018)

4.5 billion robocalls were made in June 2018. That's nearly 18 robocalls for every person.

It's not hard to understand why robocalls were the number one complaint to the Federal Trade Commission in 2017. A grand total 7,157,370 complaints were made against robocallers and telemarketers. Even so, the robocall epidemic is getting worse.

Luckily, there are solutions to help you fight back against the surge of intrusive, annoying robocalls.In this post, we will cover:

  • What are robocalls?
  • Why do You receive robocalls?
  • What laws protect you from robocalls?
  • Why the things you've been doing to block robocalls won't work
  • How to (really) stop robocalls, for good

What are robocalls?

A robocall is one of many types of phone calls that are considered spam. Spam can be defined as irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent to a large number of recipients—typically who have not expressed interest in receiving the message.

More specifically, a message is considered “spam” if:

  • The recipient’s personal identity and context are irrelevant because the message is equally applicable to many other potential recipients
  • The recipient has not verifiably granted deliberate, explicit, and still-revocable permission for it to be sent.

Source: SpamHaus

Robocalls differ from most spam and telemarketing calls primarily because they are auto-dialed from a computer and deliver a prerecorded message. Robocalls are often designed to enable interaction from the recipient, either through voice or keypad input or through transfer to an agent or representative.

More specifically, a robocall is defined as:  

“A phone call that uses a computerized autodialer to deliver a pre-recorded message, as if from a robot. The most common types of robocalls are often associated with political campaigns, telemarketing phone campaigns, emergency announcements.”

Source: FTC

Though some types of robocalls, such as political robocalls, are legitimate calls and legally approved by the FTC, the unfortunate reality is that most robocalls are either illegal, fraudulent, or both. Those who place illegal robocalls pose a danger to all consumers nationwide because they have no regard for the law or your well being, and will stop at absolutely nothing to steal from you.


What types of robocalls are out there?

Before we get into the different types of robocalls, it’s important to understand the difference between a legal and an illegal robocall, because legitimate companies are allowed by law to send robocalls to consumers’ cellular and landline phone numbers under some conditions.

Here are the primary differences:

Legal Robocalls

In very few circumstances, robocalls can be helpful to provide important notifications you might otherwise miss. A few examples include flight or school cancellations, appointment reminders, and credit card fraud alerts. However, the FTC has placed heavy restrictions and limitations to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls, otherwise offenders face heavy fines.

All robocalls must do three things to be considered legal:

  1. Federal law requires all telephone calls using pre-recorded messages to identify who is initiating the calls and include a telephone number or address whereby the caller can be reached. In most instances, legal consent or “opt-in” is also required to place pre-recorded telephone calls to landline and mobile phones.
  2. Federal Law also requires legal & legitimate robocallers to honor phone numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry. The National Do Not Call Registry is a list of numbers submitted by consumers that do not wish to be contacted from legal telemarketing and robocalls. Companies must purchase into this list before sending these calls, otherwise they will face hefty fines.
  3. The only exception to the above law is when a robocall contains “emergency” information. If the robocall contains updates necessary to the recipient, such as a flight cancellation or a fraud alert from credit cardholder services, prior consent is not required to place a robocall to your smartphone.

Illegal Robocalls

Illegal robocalls are very dangerous because they have no regard for any communication laws put in place by the government through the FTC or FCC. No illegal robocaller is ever going to register with the government or buy into the Do Not Call List to place calls that are fraudulent by design—they're very much aware that what they’re doing is against the law.

And though the contents of their robocalls may vary, they are all calling with the same intention—to steal something from you.

What makes a robocall illegal is simply a lack of prior consent. If you have not consented to receive a robocall and the robocall does not contain emergency or need-to-known information, the robocall is illegal. At times, these are legally registered companies misinterpreting the law either intentionally or mistakenly. If caught by the Commission, these organizations face heavy fines, penalties, and negative PR for abusing robocalling rights.

Though you may hear about large organizations getting caught sending illegal robocalls, the reality is that these situations are few and far between. Roughly 90% of illegal robocalls are also fraudulent by nature, and do not come from legitimate organizations “mistakenly” placing illegal robocalls. Most times, these callers are scam artists from all over the world, making them more of a threat to you as they are not held to FCC rules and regulations, and next to impossible to track.

Common Types of Robocalls

Reminders & Necessary Communication

Robocalls can sometimes be quite valuable to customers in communicating important, need-to-know information that otherwise may not have been received in real time. The only time it is permissible by law for a robocall to be placed to a smartphone without consent is when the information within the call is crucial to the recipient. A few examples of this include:

  • Important updates on school/class cancellations for colleges & local schools
  • Flight cancellations or changes from airlines
  • Appointment reminders from your doctor, dentist, or other local businesses
  • Pharmacy & Prescription reminders from your local pharmacy

Political Robocalls

Robocalls are made by many political parties in the United States, especially around election season. The primary goal of these calls is to either persuade voters to elect them or request a donation to their campaign. All prerecorded political robocalls must include the identity of the political campaign initiating the call at the beginning of the message and the telephone number of the calling party must be provided either during or after the message.

Political campaign-related prerecorded voice or autodialed calls (including autodialed live calls, prerecorded voice messages, and text messages) are prohibited to cell phones, pagers, or other mobile devices without the called party's prior express consent, but are permissible when made to landline telephones, even without prior express consent.

Nonprofit & Charity Robocalls

Telemarketing robocalls for charitable purposes are a well-known form of robocalls. They are one of the few robocalls that are permissible by law, but need to adhere to certain rules to be exempt from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). These robocalls are designed to solicit a donation or other form of support for the charity or nonprofit organization which they are calling on behalf of.

Calls made by or on behalf of a nonprofit are not required to obey the Do Not Call List restrictions or prior consent restrictions if they are placed to a landline phone only. When placing auto-dialed robocalls to a wireless number, any call or text by or on behalf of a tax-exempt nonprofit can only be placed to recipients who have expressed prior consent, which must be provided either in written or oral form.

One well-known robocall scam is disguised as a legal charity or non-profit, and aims to steal from charitable donors over the phone. Be wary of callers who do not identify the organization and contact information for which they are calling on behalf of, or donations that require a payment in a short period of time.

If you are interested in donating or supporting a charitable cause, it is always okay to request verification of the organization via email or direct mail.  

Source: CharityWatch

Loans & Credit Card Robocalls

Robocalls are also used for telemarketing purposes, but all such cases require prior written or oral consent in order to place calls to mobile phones. The most common organizations that utilize robocalls to solicit new or recurring business are electric companies, credit card companies, loan companies offering loans for student-debt relief, car vehicle loans, and mortgage assistance.

If you receive a robocall soliciting a purchase of a product or service but do not recall ever opting in or consenting to receive them, the robocall is illegal. Sometimes, legal organizations misuse the law to drive business and sales, resulting in heavy fines and bad PR. Most of the time, however, these callers are scam artists and not associated to legally registered organizations.

Because they are operating only for themselves, and have one goal in mind—to steal your personal identity and money—it is highly recommended that you never give your personal or financial information over the phone, especially to suspicious robocallers. If you are interested in the service, product, or business the caller is soliciting, always request verification in the form of email or direct mail before proceeding. Check the Better Business Bureau listings and sites such as 800Notes to determine if the caller and/or business is a scam before doing business with the organization.

IRS Robocalls

If you receive a robocall from the IRS, beware. This robocall is always illegal, and especially dangerous. Consumers lose millions of dollars to the IRS phone scam alone, especially during tax season. The IRS publicly states it will never:

  • Call you to demand immediate payment—The IRS will not call you if you owe taxes without first sending you a bill in the mail
  • Demand that you pay taxes and not allow you to question or appeal the amount you owe
  • Require that you pay your taxes a certain way. For instance, require that you pay with a prepaid debit card
  • Ask for your credit or debit card numbers over the phone
  • Threaten to bring in police or other agencies to arrest you for not paying

If you don’t owe taxes, or have no reason to think that you do, the IRS recommends you do not give out any information and hang up the phone immediately. Make note of the caller, the phone number, time of the call, and contact TIGTA to report the call by calling 800-366-4484. It is also recommended that you report the call to the Federal Trade Commission. Use the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov, and note the caller as “IRS Scam”.  

Source: IRS

Free Cruise Robocalls

If you’ve received a call claiming you’ve won a free cruise, it is highly unlikely the caller wants to send you and your family on the vacation of a lifetime. These callers are attempting to steal your personal identity, financial information, or both. If the offer is high pressure and time restricted, it is likely not legitimate.

A typical free cruise line scam artist will request you accept the offer in a short time period, and provide little information about the details of the winnings and any additional fees that may be included. A legally registered travel agency is required to answer questions regarding the details of the offer, as well as allow the recipient time to decide whether or not they’d like to accept.

Tech Support Robocalls

Receiving robocalls from a fake Tech Support service is a well-known phone scam. This scam is designed to pose as large organizations such as Microsoft or Apple, calling users to inform them of a “bug” in their operating system. Over the phone, they discuss lots of technical terms that may trick recipients into thinking they are legitimate. They will then ask you to get on your computer and open some files, then tell you those files show a problem (when they don’t).

Once they’ve convinced you that your computer has a problem, the scammers might:

  • Ask you to give them remote access to your computer, which lets them change your computer settings so your computer is vulnerable to attack
  • Trick you into installing malware that gives them access to your computer and sensitive data, like usernames and passwords
  • Try to sell you software that’s worthless, or that you could get elsewhere for free
  • Ask for credit card information so they can bill you for phony services, or services you could get elsewhere for free

Source: FTC

Organizations such as Microsoft have publicly stated they will never call a user directly about a known bug, unless a user has contacted their Technical Support team and requested a call back. Never grant access to your computer over the phone without verification, and never make payment for technical services from large organizations, as these are typically provided free of charge for customers.  

Debt Collection Robocalls

Regardless of whether you owe a debt, debt collectors are never allowed to bully or harass you in the form of robocalls. Contrary to some belief, there is no legal obligation for you to communicate with them directly. These robocallers are held accountable to the same FCC telemarketing rules &andrestrictions of all other business-related calls.

Much like telemarketing calls, you hold the right and power to opt-out of debt collection calls by communicating you do not consent to the call, and the collector must abide by the request. If you believe you owe the debt of which the collector is calling, you can stop collection calls by requesting written communication as the form of resolving the matter. Debt collectors must abide by this request—calling you again would be a violation of the law. If you continue to receive these calls after this request, you should utilize phone recording services to provide hard evidence of harassment.

Why do you receive robocalls?

There are many ways that your phone number can become a target of robocalls, but it is also very likely that your number was auto-dialed at random. A good way to check if your phone numbers are publicly available is to search for them in Google or other search engines. You may find that your phone number is associated with social media profiles that are accessible to the public and easily scraped by call list collection companies.

Though it is possible that your information may have been scraped from the internet, in many instances, there is no method to the madness—your phone number is dialed at random. Using auto-dialing technology, spam calls can be placed in immense volume with little strategy or method to the phone numbers called. In these circumstances, the first call to the phone number is typically placed only to identify if it is an active phone number.

If the caller is unsuccessful in scamming or selling their product to the victim during their first attempt, the phone number will be flagged as “try again”. This could be due to the call recipient engaging with the caller, dialing a number to “opt out”, or requesting to no longer be called. This, in turn, will increase the number of spam calls you receive—simply because the spam caller knows they’re under your skin. For this reason, it is important to avoid answering or engaging with unfamiliar calls as frequently as possible.

Read More: Spam Calls 101

What laws protect you from robocalls?

Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) places restrictions on robocalls and prerecorded messages made by telemarketers, businesses, debt collectors, and political campaigns. TCPA regulations restrict the practices of telemarketers and debt collectors and their use of automated dialing and pre-recorded voice messages in the form of opt-in consent with regard to:

  • Cell phones
  • Residential phone lines
  • Text messages
  • Unsolicited faxes

Under the TCPA, telemarketers and debt collectors using an auto dialer are also forbidden from other practices, including calling the consumer before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. The caller must additionally, during any call, provide his or her name, the name of the business entity on whose behalf the call is being made, and a telephone number or address at which the person or entity can be reached.

What constitutes a violation of the TCPA?

Robocalls to Phone Numbers on the "Do Not Call Registry

The Do Not Call Registry is a national list of phone numbers listed consumers of which do not wish to be called by telemarketers. The TCPA prohibits any solicitations calls to those consumers whose telephone numbers are registered on the Do-Not-Call List. Consumers can place both their cell phone and residential lines on the Do Not Call registry.

Robocalls to Residential Phone Lines

The Commission’s laws and regulations prohibit pre-recorded messages for calls made to residential telephone lines. This law applies only to solicitations from telemarketers/sellers with whom the consumer does not have an "established business relationship." If the consumer has done business with a telemarketer/seller within the last 18 months, or made inquiry within the last three months, then it is presumed under the TCPA that the consumer has an established business relationship with that telemarketer/seller.

Robocalls to Mobile Phones Without Prior Consent

The TCPA prohibits the use of robocalls or spam text messages to both personal and professional cell telephones. A robocaller violates the law every time they make an automated robocall or text message to a consumer's cell phone without consent. The only circumstance of which does not violate the TCPA is if the consumer previously gave the robocaller permission to call. In cases where consent has been previously given, the consumer can revoke that consent by notifying the telemarketer or debt collector to stop calling the cell phone.

Source: Nolo

Additional Robocall Resources

Organizations such as the FTC provide additional resources to assist consumers in the fight against robocalls. We recommend bookmarking the following resources on your web or mobile browser:

How to Stop Robocalls

As you’ve now learned or may have already experienced, there are many different types of robocalls. Though some robocalls have the intention of being helpful or informational, the reality is that most are not.

Robocalls distract us from our families and friends, interrupt productive work days, and worst of all, try to steal our money or personal identity. More and more, we become less trustworthy of unfamiliar numbers calling due to the growing robocall issue. As a result, we miss important updates from callers with good intentions, such as schools, doctors, and job offers.

Taking the time to learn how to stop robocalls the right way will truly make your life better. It will exponentially reduce your risk of telephone scams, save precious time wasted answering unwanted or illegal robocalls, and restore your sense of confidence when answering incoming calls.

There are a few reasons, however, why effectively stopping robocalls can be challenging. Below we highlight the major challenges in stopping robocalls effectively and why understanding the limitations of most robocall blocking solutions can be helpful in identifying the true solution to the problem.

Caller ID Spoofing Fuels the Robocall Problem

Caller ID spoofing is arguably the biggest challenge in fighting robocalls and is primarily to blame for the growing spam call issue worldwide. Illegal robocallers utilize Caller ID spoofing because it is incredibly difficult to trace—this makes scammers confident they can commit phone crimes without getting caught.

Caller ID spoofing, otherwise known as phone spoofing, is the practice of placing a call from a phone number other than the phone number you are calling from. By spoofing your phone number, nearly anyone can call you from:

  1. Blocked Caller ID
  2. “No Caller ID”
  3. Unknown Caller ID
  4. Random Phone Numbers
  5. Phone Numbers from Local Area Codes
  6. Even the Recipient's Phone Number!

Caller ID spoofing allows spam callers to be more strategic in their methods to get you on the phone. Spoofing functionality allows spam callers to place calls from phone numbers that appear to be in your same area code, to make recipients believe they are receiving a call from their doctor’s office, mechanic, or school.

The economics of Caller ID spoofed robocalls also makes phone scamming an attractive market. All that truly needed to scam unsuspecting victims from their hard earned money is a telephone and an auto-dialing service—the barriers to entry are quite low. It is also speculated that it costs a robocaller anywhere from $0.01 to $0.05 per minute to place a spoofed call, which is pretty cheap when you consider the potential reward of millions of dollars fraudulently collected by these crooks!

What makes Caller ID spoofing so challenging to stop?

Because each spoofed call can be placed from a unique fake number, robocalls are close to impossible to trace to the true origin of the caller or stop the caller from calling you again. If you receive a robocall you believe to be fraudulently using the default call blocking on your phone will not stop the fraudster—they’ll simply call you from a different fake number!

Although the technology available for phone scammers to avoid getting caught for phone crimes have rapidly developed, the technology available to block robocalls has not developed at the same pace until only recently. The true solution to combatting phone spoofing is advanced audio fingerprinting technology, which creates a unique fingerprint for each call based off of its contents. This "fingerprint" can then be used to match and identify similar calls even if they originate from different phone numbers. By doing so, we are then able to quickly add these calls to our global block list, even as the calling phone number may be changing quickly. With the introduction of robocall blocking apps such as RoboKiller, this solution has proved to be successful in tracking the true identity of a spoofed caller.

Why traditional methods of blocking robocalls don’t work

As the technology designed to help robocallers reach your phone has evolved, effective smartphone call blocking has not. This is partly because of common misconceptions about effective robocall blocking solutions, and partly because phone and service providers have yet to invest in developing functionality that will help stop the problem.

Here are some common "solutions" to stopping robocalls and reasons why they don't work:

Registering on the Do Not Call List

When the Do Not Call Registry was launched in 2003 it became a huge media story, but unfortunately, the story did not line up with what was actually being offered. The Do Not Call Registry is a list of people that have opted out of telephone solicitations from legal, registered businesses.

Legal businesses are required to honor this list. In fact, they have to purchase access to this list if they want to sell their services by telephone. And they do! Legal, registered businesses honor the Do Not Call Registry every day, but the call that interrupted your dinner last night wasn’t from a legal, registered business, and the Do Not Call registry cannot and will not protect you from those calls—ever.

While registering on the Do Not Call List will definitely reduce the number of legal spam calls from reaching your phone, it definitely will not stop the illegal robocallers. This is primarily because illegal phone criminals will never register on the Do Not Call Registry to try to steal from you over the phone. These callers are the ones you should really be concerned about, as they have no regard for the law or your safety and well-being. The bad actors are:

  • Not going to register their “businesses”. When you are a crook, it’s usually a terrible idea to tell a government agency that you are crook and you plan to steal from people.
  • Not going to pay to not call you. Remember, legitimate businesses have to pay for access to the registry. Crooks steal money by making calls to you, not by paying for a service that stops them from calling you.
  • Hiding in the shadows. You can’t shut down their phone numbers because they will just use another “spoofed” number, you can’t arrest them because they live in foreign countries and are nearly impossible to find, and you can’t expect the government to just make it stop because if it was that easy they certainly would.

Read More: Don’t Expect Fewer Spam Calls from the Do Not Call Registry

While we do recommend registering on the Do Not Call List if you wish not to receive legal telemarketing calls, we do not recommend you rely on the Do Not Call List as the all-encompassing solution to the dangers of illegal scammers and robocallers. This is because the Do Not Call Registry was not designed to stop spammers who have no regard for the law, nor will it ever have the technological resources to do so.

Reporting Robocalls to the FTC

If a robocall you’ve received is suspected to be fraudulent, it is typically recommended you file a complaint with the FTC. While this will help your peace of mind, it will not prevent the caller from trying to scam you again. This is because caller ID spoofing has made it challenging for the FTC to track and reprimand offenders.

Although filing a report with the FTC can be helpful in identifying common trends of scam artists and preventing other victims from losing their hard earned dollars, the unfortunate truth is that the Commission simply does not, and likely will not, have the advanced technological resources to reveal the true identity behind these spoofed calls and stop them from calling you. Because of this, the Commission recommends downloading a third party spam call blocking app such as RoboKiller to protect yourself from the risk of phone scams.

Blocking Robocalls Using Features Built Into Your Mobile Phone

As mentioned above, phone spoofing also makes using the call blocking features built into your mobile phone obsolete in the fight against robocalls. The FTC states:

“Many mobile phones come equipped with features built into the device that can block calls from specific numbers. These features can let consumers block specific contacts, identify unwanted incoming calls for future blocking, and set “do not disturb” hours. You must manage these lists on your own, and the device may limit the number of calls you can block.”

Source: FTC

There is one major problem with this recommended solution. Using the “Block This Number” function on your iPhone or Android will not fight the number of unwanted robocalls you receive. If the robocaller discovers there is another person on the other end of the phone and your number is flagged as “try again later”, you’ve only made matters worse. Robocallers will increase their attempts to get you on the phone, each time from a different fake number.  

Contacting Your Phone Carrier

There are three basic reasons why phone companies have not done much to provide robocall blocking solutions to customers:

  1. Money. Understanding the economics of robocalls is the first step in solving the problem. Placing phone calls is inexpensive for telemarketers and robocallers; they can make millions of illegal calls at little cost and with almost no risk. Unfortunately, phone companies make money when they connect these calls to your phone. So unless their competitors are offering a better solution to stop nuisance calls, carriers have little incentive and money to lose by investing money to prevent these calls.
  2. Regulations. Telecommunications is highly regulated by the government to create competition and fairness, but this also slows down innovation and reduces the risks carriers are willing to take.
  3. It is not an easy problem to solve. The phone network is a complex web of carriers and solutions providers. Without cooperation, it is difficult to stop these calls; especially from calls originating overseas.

New laws and new cooperation between the government, telecom companies, and third-party providers are hoping to improve the telemarketing and robocall situation, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

How to stop robocalls, once and for all

Now that you understand nearly everything there is to know about robocalls and how to stop them, we want to let you in on a secret. There is a solution to the problem that actually works.

The concept is simple—if spam callers can’t ever reach your phone, they can’t steal your time, money, or personal identity.

However, as you now know, this can be difficult to accomplish considering the challenges of traditional methods of spam call blocking. Because of this, the FTC recommends downloading a third-party mobile app for the following reasons:

“Call blocking apps let you create blacklists – lists of numbers to block from calling your cell phone. Many of these apps also create their own blacklist databases from numbers that have received significant consumer complaints. They also let you create whitelists – numbers to allow – that are broader than just your personal contacts.”

Source: FTC

Because the Commission’s rules and regulations don’t directly support blocking these calls (nor do they have the technological infrastructure to support it), third-party apps are invaluable in the fight against spam calls. Not to mention, they are created by people who hate spam calls so much that they dedicated years to designing an app that will effectively stop spam calls for good.

RoboKiller doesn’t just block robocalls, it takes the fight to them

If you thought we would recommend downloading RoboKiller as the #1 solution to stop robocalls, you guessed correctly. But we’re not the only ones who think so! The Federal Trade Commission awarded RoboKiller as the winner of their most recent Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back Competition in 2015.

RoboKiller stands apart from other unwanted blocking apps because it was not just designed to stop robocalls; it was created to put robocallers out of business. Beyond offering the most effective spam call protection, real-time caller identification, and block/allow listfunctionality, RoboKiller also allows you to get revenge on spam callers using Answer Bots, pre-recordings that keep spam callers on the phone for hours.

Listen to an Answer Bot get under a spam caller's skin.

RoboKiller is an easy investment to ensure your privacy and personal information is protected from annoying spam calls. Join the fight to stop spammers for good, all while enjoying a spam call free smartphone!  

Get started with a free one week trial of RoboKiller!

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