Rage against robocalls

Solutions to stop the onslaught might finally be within reach

Published: July 28, 2015 06:00 AM

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 E lizabeth Osborn, 79, of Indianapolis is besieged by robocalls—those prerecorded, unsolicited annoyances that are invading homes every day like a swarm of gnats. “I’ve gotten as many as 10 a day,” she reports. To cope, she says, she has tried ignoring the calls, just letting the phone ring and ring. She has tried answering, following the prompts to talk with a human being so that she can beseech the company to stop. No luck.“When I do that, the calls just increase substantially.”

If robocalls were a disease, they would be an epidemic. Every month more than 150,000 consumers complain to the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission about “Rachel from Cardholder Services” or Microsoft “representatives” warning about a computer virus. “Robocalls have eclipsed live telemarketing calls” as a source of consumer complaints, says ­Bikram Bandy, program coordinator for the National Do Not Call Registry, where consumers can list their telephone number to limit unwanted telemarketing solicitations. Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, a call-blocking technology, estimates that 35 percent of all calls placed in the U.S. are robocalls. “For every 10 phone calls you get, roughly three to four of them will be unwanted robocalls,” he says.

Just to be clear: Robocalls refer to auto­dialed or prerecorded telemarketing calls to landline home telephones or cell phones, or unsolicited text messages to wireless numbers. Autodialed informational messages, such as those announcing school closings or weather alerts, are permitted according to the FCC, as are calls to landlines on behalf of nonprofit groups and political campaigns.

Driven to distraction, some frustrated consumers simply turn off their phone’s ringer and let all calls go to voice mail. But that’s not a viable solution for everyone, as Osborn points out. “A lot of people don’t want to leave a message. My 96-year-old mother and my 85-year-old mother-in-law, who suffers from dementia, are both uncomfortable with answering machines.”

Find out which robocall blockers work best. And tell us about your experience with robocall-blocking devices or sound off about robocalls by adding a comment below.

An avenue for scams

Robocalls do more than negatively affect quality of life: They are a way in which scammers prey on unsuspecting consumers. Telemarketing fraud—which often begins with a robocall—is estimated to cost consumers $350 million per year. The Microsoft robocall scam begins, “Your computer is sending us a message that it has a virus,” then promises to fix it if you provide access to your computer, opening the door to identity theft. The IRS scam tricks taxpayers into believing that the federal agency is on the line, requiring you to pay “fines” by loading money onto a prepaid debit card. Another scam claims that you failed to show up for jury duty and asks you to “verify” your date of birth and Social Security number for the record—information a fraudster can use to open credit accounts in your name.

Thanks in large part to the widespread adoption of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, which is increasingly replacing old-fashioned copper-wire landlines, the problem of robocalls is getting worse. Calls placed with traditional phone lines correspond to a number associated with a physical location, but robo­callers using VoIP can quickly change their origin number or “spoof,” that is, assume a different number. In the IRS scam, fraudsters spoofed a Washington, D.C., area code to appear legitimate on caller ID. More than $19 million was stolen.

Furthermore, by using VoIP, con artists can set up shop anywhere in the world where there is an Internet connection and place thousands of calls for pennies. “It’s as cheap to make a call from India as from Indiana,” Bandy notes. And they don’t need a sophisticated call center; they can buy a software application, load it onto a cell phone, and start dialing.

You can join our fight against robocalls by pressuring telephone carriers to offer free and effective call-blocking technology. Sign our petition at EndRobocalls.org.

No phone is safe

If you think you’re protected from robocalls because you use only a cell phone, you’re wrong. Robocalls once were mostly limited to people with traditional landlines, but today mobile devices are also vulnerable. Worse, robocalls and robo­texts use up precious time on a “minutes” package. Dave Huff, of Fortville, Ind., gripes, “You answer, no one talks or they tell you not to hang up because they have important info about your credit card—all of which eats up time that I will have to pay extra for.”

Why doesn’t the Do Not Call Registry thwart robocallers? Even though it’s typically illegal for robocallers to contact a consumer who hasn’t given his or her express consent to receive such calls, many robocallers simply ignore the DNC list, betting that the FCC and FTC are too busy to come after them. They’re often right: Just a handful of robocall operators can cheaply make millions of calls. For example, in 2012, the FTC shut down five boiler rooms running the infamous “Rachel From Cardholder Services” scam in which “Rachel” dangles lower interest rates to get you to reveal your credit-card number. “We saw negligible to no impact on the complaint numbers coming in on Rachel calls,” Bandy reports. “It’s not just whack-a-mole. We have to whack all the moles to really deliver to consumers who sign up on the DNC registry the peace and quiet they want.”

Bandy compares the robocall epidemic to the state of e-mail spam 15 years ago: “For every legitimate message, there would be 100 Nigerian princes writing.” But thanks to better spam filters, it’s not the problem it used to be. Bandy asks, “Can we do that for the phone?”

New—and needed—solutions

Recognizing that traditional tools such as the DNC registry weren’t getting the job done, in 2012 the FTC launched a Robocall Challenge, offering a $50,000 cash prize for the best technical solution to blocking robocalls.

One of three winners was Aaron Foss, a freelance programmer who came up with a prototype for Nomorobo over the course of a weekend. “Before I heard of the challenge, I didn’t even know robocalls were a problem,” he confesses. Nomorobo’s technology intercepts all incoming calls to your phone, judges the likelihood of their being robocalls, and lets only the legitimate calls through. Foss boasts that the technology has a 95 percent accuracy rate.

Foss is pleased with the success of Nomorobo, but he remains puzzled that the major telephone companies, with all of their resources, didn’t solve the problem first. In fact, until recently, one of the biggest hurdles to the widespread adoption and implementation of call-blocking technology has been those industry leaders, which took the position that their legal obligation to complete all calls precluded their offering to block any, despite their customers’ increasingly frantic pleas. But in a significant ruling this past June, the FCC brushed aside the companies’ objections and gave permission for carriers to provide call-blocking technologies. “The FCC wants to make it clear: Telephone companies can—and, in fact, should—offer consumers robocall-blocking tools,” wrote FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

But at present it’s still up to consumers to build their own bulwark against robocalls. People with traditional and VoIP landlines can reduce—although not eliminate—robocalls by purchasing call-blocking devices that plug into their phone lines. Some allow you to blacklist numbers you no longer wish to receive; others let you set up a “whitelist,” or manually program the phone to recognize and accept a certain number of known “safe” numbers. (Find out which robocall blockers work best.) Similar apps are available for iPhone and Android users.

The major telephone carriers also offer call-blocking services for some VoIP and landlines. But the options depend on your geographic location and service package, and are limited in their ability to block calls. For example, AT&T lets you block 20 numbers on its VoIP service—which is laughable, given the ease with which robocallers can switch numbers. Adding insult to injury, customers may have to pay for the services.

“The onus right now is on the consumer to navigate these complex problems,” says Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Consumers are being forced to pay for tools to block calls they shouldn’t be receiving in the first place.” Obviously, that isn’t fair.

By contrast, Nomorobo’s blacklist contains more than 883,000 numbers, with 200 numbers added every day. Nomorobo is free, but it is currently available only on VoIP phones and when offered by the carrier. “It is technically possible to work on landlines,” Foss says. “That’s the big push: Saying to the carriers, ‘Just make this available to everyone.’ ”

That’s where consumers come in. The FCC and FTC can’t order phone companies to provide anti-robocall technology, but so far more than 327,000 people have signed this year’s EndRobocalls.org petition calling for carriers to make use of the available technology and provide it to their customers free.

In view of the FCC’s ruling greenlighting call-blocking technology, consumers have gained more leverage. And just calling a carrier to complain can send a message. “Customer service costs outweigh the costs to deliver a call,” says Eric Burger, director of the Georgetown Center for Secure Communications at Georgetown University. “It’s dollars per minute to deal with a customer complaint, and they’re making pennies to complete a call. They’d like this problem to go away.”

Wouldn’t we all? But with consumers wielding more clout, the FCC removing barriers to call-blocking tools, and the FTC challenging programmers to come up with creative solutions, there just might be a cure for the robocall epidemic.

What to do when the phone rings

“I am so tired of arguing with these companies!” complained Lori Rodriguez of Hackensack, N.J., to a Consumers Union forum. “I have asked them not to call, I’ve yelled and screamed, you name it, yet they continue to call.” Others cope by keeping a whistle by the phone, pressing 1 to connect with an operator, and blasting it in his ear. One woman passes the phone to her toddler to babble into.

Such tactics may provide personal satisfaction, but they’re a bad strategy to thwart robocalls, says Lois Greisman, associate director at the FTC. Pressing 1 only verifies that a real person has picked up the phone, “and consequently, you may receive more calls.” Pressing the button to indicate you don’t want to receive the call shows that you’re a live respondent. Scammers will put your number into a queue to target later.

What’s especially frustrating is that you may not realize an incoming call is a robocall because robocallers “spoof,” or hide behind, familiar numbers to fool caller ID and entice you to pick up. If you answer the phone only to hear the start of a robocall spiel, Greisman’s advice is very basic: As soon as you hear the first recorded words, hang up.


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


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