New Study Finds Some Phone Companies Offer Better Robocall Protections Than Others

Internet-based phone services offer better options than landline and wireless providers

An industry-led task force plans to meet later today to discuss solutions to the problem of annoying and potentially harmful robocalls. Consumer Reports has been fighting for better consumer protections against these calls for several years and has recently reviewed what phone companies are doing for customers to address the issue.

Overall, Consumer Reports found that while consumers using internet-based phone services have the best carrier-provided call-blocking options, most phone companies aren’t providing strong protection to their traditional landline and wireless customers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it receives more complaints about unwanted calls to Americans’ cell and home phones than anything else. The national Do Not Call Registry is proving to be increasingly ineffective as a defense against brazen scammers who have little interest in following the rules.

In July, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, implored the phone industry to step up to the plate and provide solutions to block robocalls. In response, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson agreed to head up a Robocall Strike Force with other telecommunications providers, which is expected to unveil its plan to combat unwanted calls at the meeting later today.

"Robocalls are more than just a nuisance," says Tim Marvin, who manages the End Robocalls campaign for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. "Crooks use robocalls to commit fraud and rip off vulnerable consumers. Telephone scams result in an estimated $350 million in financial losses every year."

A poll released by Consumer Reports in September found that customers of the top phone companies are deeply frustrated with robocalls and that a large number of respondents would switch their phone service to carriers that offered effective solutions to block unwanted calls.

In our new analysis, Consumer Reports compared the offerings of 21 phone services, including those that promise to block robocalls on cellphones, internet-based VoIP lines, and classic old-school landlines.

Consumer Reports compared providers based on six criteria, including cost and the variety of services they offer. (See tables below.)

“The ideal call-blocking service is free and maintains a large database of numbers that is continually updated. It allows users to block or allow specific numbers, with features that are easy to schedule, turn on, and turn off,” says Bernie Deitrick, senior program test leader at Consumer Reports, who compiled the results of our analysis.

While Consumer Reports did not test the performance of all these different services, an analysis of company offerings showed that Time Warner Cable has one of the most comprehensive and easy-to-use solutions. Time Warner does not charge for its call-blocking services and gives its internet-based phone service (sometimes called VoIP) customers the option of turning on automated call-blocking by enabling Nomorobo, a third-party call-blocking application that is expanding its service to smartphones.

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The worst call-blocking offerings were for older landline systems from AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, and Fairpoint. AT&T and Verizon also ranked low for the call-blocking services they offer to wireless customers, as did US Cellular and Sprint.

But these wireless customers have other options. Smartphone users can take advantage of a number of third-party call-blocking apps. Many cell phones also offer built-in features that allow customers to block certain numbers. In addition, phone operating systems may offer call-blocking features such as the Do Not Disturb feature available on iPhones. Those with basic cell phones typically don’t have as many advanced options to protect themselves from unwanted calls.

In September, RingPlus, a prepaid cell-phone provider, launched a suite of call-blocking options using a homegrown system. Interestingly, RingPlus says its software developers needed less than one week to build its Universal Blacklist system, suggesting that it shouldn’t be too much of a lift for poorly rated service providers to improve their call blocking features.

Add your name to the End Robocalls initiative to keep the pressure on the telecommunications industry to stop the flood of nuisance calls.

VoIP Providers

ProviderPrice (1)Uses Nationwide Database to Block CallsOffers Personal BlacklistRejects Anonymous CallsOffers Do Not DisturbOffers Personal Whitelist
Time Warner CableFreeYesYesYesYesYes
Verizon FiOSFreeYesYesYesYes
AT&T U-verseFreeYesYesYesYes
Frontier FreeYesYes

Cellular Providers

ProviderPrice (1)Uses Nationwide Database to Block CallsOffers Personal BlacklistRejects Anonymous CallsOffers Do Not DisturbOffers Personal Whitelist
AT&T Wireless$Yes
Verizon Wireless$
US Cellular$Yes

Landline Providers

ProviderPrice (1)Uses Nationwide Database to Block CallsOffers Personal BlacklistRejects Anonymous Calls Offers Do Not DisturbOffers Personal Whitelist
Sonic FreeYesYes
Windstream $YesYesYesYes
Fairpoint $$Yes
Verizon $$YesYes
AT&T $$YesYes

How to Deal With Robocalls and Robotexts

Annoyed by robocalls and spam text messages on your mobile phone? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Margot Gilman offers advice to host Jack Rico on how to deal with these spammers.

Carla Fried

Carla Fried is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on personal finance topics. She cut her teeth nearly 30 years ago, writing about mutual funds and 401(k)s—topics that were just catching on with mass consumer audiences back then. Recognizing that emotions play a big part in managing finances, she is interested in the challenge of planning for long-term goals, especially retirement.