Photo illustration of a recall blocker imposed on a smartphone

Believe it or not, robocalls are actually on the decline, helped by new call-filtering technology and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But consumers can still take extra steps to make sure they're getting as few unwanted calls as possible. 

In 2020, robocalls dropped by 22 percent in the U.S. to the lowest level in three years, according to the blocking and tracking service YouMail. But even with that decline, U.S. consumers still received 45.9 billion spam calls.

A combination of factors brought the number down.

The major telecom companies completed installing new tools last year to identify and halt spoofed calls, which use a fake number to trick you into answering. Smaller, more rural carriers are expected to roll out similar technology in the coming months, which will block out even more calls. 

Regulators also increased enforcement actions against robocallers. In June, for example, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $250 million fine against a robocaller that was making a billion unwanted calls every four months to illegally sell health insurance. The robocaller soon went out of business.

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But those crackdowns have limitations.

“It's really whack-a-mole,” says Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, because once one is shut down, the criminals will quickly move to another carrier and start again. 

The biggest factor in the robocall decline may be the pandemic, which disrupted overseas call centers.

“You could see robocalls dropping as India locked down, as the Philippines locked down,” Quilici says.

But the impact is likely to be temporary. Robocalls are expected to rebound once countries—and call centers—begin to reopen as the pandemic subsides.

Consumers, then, need to make sure they’re doing everything they can to block robocalls. Here are some steps to take right now.

Optimize Your Phone

Many cell phones offer a “whitelisting” tool that will allow calls only from numbers in your contact list.

But there’s a downside. It also blocks calls from people you want to talk to, like a doctor or delivery person, but who aren’t in your contacts. That means you have to keep updating your contact list so that you don’t miss an important call.

Here’s how to install the whitelist tool.

For iPhones (iOS 13 and later): To turn on Silence Unknown Callers, go to Settings > Phone, then scroll down, tap Silence Unknown Callers, and turn on the feature. Calls from unknown numbers are silenced and sent to your voicemail, and will appear in your recent calls list.

For Android phones: To turn on Block Calls From Unidentified Callers, tap the phone icon usually found at the bottom of your home screen, then at the top right corner of the screen, tap the three dots > Settings > Blocked Numbers. Enable Block Calls From Unidentified Callers by tapping the toggle switch on the right.

Google’s Pixel phones: These smartphones have a tool called Call Screen that’s built in and works automatically. When you receive a call from any number, you can tap Screen Call on your home screen and Google Assistant will answer it for you and ask the caller to identify themself and the reason for calling. When a caller responds, a real-time transcript of the response is displayed.

If it’s someone you want to speak to, you can simply answer the call. If it’s a robocall, you can automatically report it to Google as spam as well as log it or blacklist it locally on your device. The tool will then block the number from calling you in the future. Note, though, that while this tool (and others like it) screens the call, it doesn’t prevent the phone from ringing and interrupting you.

Use Your Carrier’s Anti-Robocall Tools

Last year big phone carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon  installed call-filtering technology called STIR/SHAKEN that  recognizes most legitimate phone numbers while weeding out or warning about suspicious numbers.

Carriers can also block suspect calls under a new law called the TRACED Act, which took effect last year. 

For the most part, consumers don’t have to do anything to get these free services to work. Calls recognized as legitimate will be allowed through with an indication, such as a green check mark. Numbers not recognized as legit will either be blocked or allowed to ring with an alert indicating that the call is suspected to be spam or a scam.

But these services might not be automatically enabled for all phones on all carriers. You may have to activate the basic robocall blocking features on your phone. The steps (listed below) vary depending on the carrier.

Note that customers of smaller carriers, such as rural phone service providers, might not have access to these services yet, because many of these carriers are still implementing STIR/SHAKEN technology.

AT&T

AT&T offers Call Protect, which will display a “V” (for verified) on your caller ID for calls considered legitimate. It will also block potentially fraudulent calls by giving a busy signal. You’ll still get spam calls, but your caller ID will display Suspected Spam and a category like Political, Nonprofit, Telemarketer, Survey, or Robocaller.

How to Turn On Call Protect
On the web, go to your myAT&T account overview. Locate the My Digital Phone section and choose Check or Manage Voicemail & Features > Phone Features > Call Protect, then follow the prompts to turn on Call Protect.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile offers two free anti-robocall tools: Scam ID and Scam Block. Scam ID identifies and tags suspicious calls. T-Mobile One customers automatically get Scam ID. Other customers can activate it free. Scam Block is a more robust free tool, which, as the name implies, blocks calls before they ring. But customers need to activate this service.

How to Turn On Scam ID
Dial #ONI# (#664#), then press the call button.

How to Turn On Scam Block
Dial #ONB# (#662#), then press the call button.

Verizon

Verizon automatically enrolls eligible customers in the free version of Call Filter, which detects spam and blocks high-risk calls. This option is available on a wide variety of phones. See the full list of compatible devices.

Verizon also offers a more robust paid anti-robocall tool called Call Filter Plus, which can block unwanted calls. It costs $3 per month per line for up to two lines. It’s $8 per month for three or more lines. Most Verizon phones come preloaded with the Call Filter app, which is necessary to activate Call Filter Plus. If your phone isn’t preloaded with the app, it’s available for download at the app store.

How to Activate Call Filter Plus
Android:
 Open Call Filter app, then tap Account > Subscription Status > Subscribe Now.

iPhone: Open Call Filter app, then tap Get Call Filter > Subscribe.

Online: Go to your account’s My Verizon section. Go to the Add-ons and apps page in My Verizon and select Manage Call Filter > Manage Add-on. Select which line you want to manage, and select the Call Filter Plus bubble under Choose Your Call Filter product. Choose whether to apply Call Filter to All eligible lines or choose Selected lines. You can get Call Filter Plus (Multiline) for accounts with three or more eligible lines for $8 per month per account. Click Continue > Confirm when the Confirmation screen appears.

My Verizon App: Open the My Verizon app. Tap the menu in the top left > Plans & Devices, then scroll down and tap Explore Add-ons. Scroll down to find Call Filter and tap Learn More, then choose a line to manage and tap Enroll > Call Filter Plus > Next. To sign up for Call Filter Plus (Single line), tap the $2.99/mo. per line Call Filter Plus option. To sign up for Call Filter Plus (Multi-line) (requires three or more eligible lines), tap the $7.99/mo. for three or more lines Call Filter Plus option. Review your changes and tap “I accept the Terms & Conditions,” then tap Confirm.

Add More Protection

Downloading a third-party call-blocking app or signing up for your phone company’s separate robocall blocking service could provide even more protection.

Some of these apps charge a fee, while others offer a free subscription. However, some “free” apps are free only for an introductory period and will automatically begin charging you a fee unless you cancel your subscription before the free trial ends.

These beefed-up services use algorithms, lists of blacklisted numbers and proprietary technology to filter out suspicious calls and can supplement the call-blocking and labeling functionality of STIR/SHAKEN. They also give you more control to manually choose which calls can come through and which ones to block.

However, you should consider potential privacy implications before downloading third-party apps, warns Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst at Consumer Reports.

“There are few restrictions on what these companies can do with your data, so keep in mind that you’re trusting developers with sensitive information about your calls,” she says.

For even more privacy protection, there are premium services that offer tools such as access to a virtual private network (VPN) that can safeguard your data on public WiFi networks. 

Editor’s Note: The section on third-party call-blocking apps has been updated to provide more information about them and the fees they charge.