Would you like to know how to stop robocalls, those annoying automated phone calls that interrupt you at home or work with a recorded message? So would some 17,000 consumers who live in Indiana who took the time to file a complaint with the state. And so would the Federal Trade Commission, which is offering a $50,000 grand prize to the person who comes up with the best solution for blocking illegal commercial robocalls on landlines and cell phones.
Why are these calls so common? The same technology that makes it possible for us to call just about anyone anywhere in the world cheaply also makes it possible for annoy, harass or scam anyone anywhere in the world -- and often to do so anonymously with little fear of being caught or stopped. Using autodialers, they can call thousands of households a day.
These calls aren’t just annoying. They can be downright dangerous.
Pindrop Security reports that there were more than 1.6 million fraudulent calls placed between January and September 2012. Callers often impersonate legitimate organizations in an effort to get personal information from victims, then use it to commit identity theft. One of the ways they accomplish this is by “spoofing” the source of the call through caller ID. They make it look like they are calling from a local number, for example, even though they may be across the country or overseas. Or they will use a spoofed caller ID number to make the call appear to be coming from a bank or credit card issuer. “Right now, you can get an app and pretend to call your friend from the White House,” says Matt Anthony, vice president of marketing for Pindrop Security.
Fraudulent calls are lucrative endeavor, netting fraudsters some $10 billion annually, the organization says.
Clamping Down On Phone Spammers
Many robocalls are illegal. The Telemarketing Sales Rule offers three general levels of protections to consumers, explained Will Maxson, Program Manager for Do Not Call Enforcement for the Federal Trade Commission, in his presentation at the FTC Robocall Summit held Oct. 18.
The first is the National Do Not Call Registry that consumers can use to opt out of most marketing calls; the second is internal “do not call” lists that companies must maintain with contact information for consumers who have asked not to be called by that charity or company again. Finally, the FTC points out that most robocalls are prohibited except when a consumer has given his or her written permission to receive them. Plus, the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 prohibits any person or entity from transmitting misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value.
In addition, cell phone customers have extra protections. “Wireless is different,” reported David Diggs, Vice President of Wireless Internet Development for CTIA -- The Wireless Association, in his presentation at the summit. All robocalls to cell phones, except for emergency purposes or where there is “prior expressed consent of (the) called party” are prohibited. He pointed out that there is no exemption for political or charitable organizations.
How to Stop Robocalls Now
There is no failsafe tool for stopping these calls today, primarily because it’s so easy for scammers to fake the location from which they are calling. Adam Panagia, Director of AT&T Network Fraud Investigations, said in his presentation, “There are currently no available solutions in the Public Switched Telephone Network that completely ‘eliminate’ [caller ID spoofing].”
And of course, criminals here or abroad don’t care whether they are breaking the law or not. All they care about is collecting cash without getting caught.
However, there are some ways you may be able to cut down on the number of calls -- at least until some genius comes up with that winning idea for thwarting them altogether.
- Never respond to a robocall. The FTC warns not to “press 1 to speak to a live operator and don’t press any other number to get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it will probably just lead to more robocalls.” That’s because the company calling will now know it has reached a working number, or a “live” prospect.
- Don’t give out personal information. If you do get an unsolicited call from a company you do business with and the person on the other end of the line starts to ask for personal information, tell them that you will not give them any more information until you verify the call is legitimate. If the caller claims to be from your bank, for example, tell them you will call them back at the phone number on the bank’s website and ask the caller for instructions to reach them through their extension, Anthony advises.
- Ask your phone company if it can block the number is another piece of advice the FTC offers. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t help for long. The firms that place these calls can spoof phone numbers or change the number they are “calling from” frequently. Pindrop Security says the “worst offender we track used 12,552 phone numbers in the first three quarters of 2012.” Plus you may have to pay a fee for call blocking. Verizon charges $3/month for Anonymous call block, for example.
- Put technology to work for you. Check out services that can help you screen, block or report annoying or harassing robocalls. Google Voice, which I used, gives you a free number that allows you to screen calls; Privacy Star is an app that helps you control calls to your cell phone (free trial, 99 cents -- $2.99/month afterward), and Primus Telecommunication Canada Inc. offers a free service called Telemarketing Guard designed to require telemarketers to announce themselves before the call will go through.
- Report these calls. The FTC encourages you to report your experience to them online at www.donotcall.gov or at 1-888-382-1222. Also consider reporting these calls to your carrier. For example, Verizon’s Unlawful Call Center phone number is 1‐800‐257‐2969.