A woman looking at her smartphone

The number of robocalls Americans receive has reached epidemic proportions.

A record 5 billion-plus robocalls were placed in the month of October alone, according to the latest tally by YouMail, a robocall blocking and tracking company—a significant increase from just the month before.

At the rate they are growing, the total number of robocalls placed in 2018 could reach 50 billion, eclipsing 2017’s record—by 20 billion calls, YouMail says.

“Every time we think the robocall epidemic has peaked, it turns out it hasn’t,” says YouMail CEO Alex Quilici.

More On Robocalls

The problem has become so enormous that phone carriers and regulators are under growing pressure to do something about it.

Robocalls are much more than a nuisance, Quilici says. Because they involve something so critical to our day-to-day lives—our phones—they can be a real danger.

“You simply can no longer trust the caller ID, the caller name, or who the caller talking to you says they are,” he explains. “And that makes the phone a much less useful way to communicate.” 

The Fight to Stem the Onslaught

The numbers are simply staggering: October’s massive robocall volume means 170 million robocalls were placed per day, 71 million per hour, and 2,000 per second, with each person in America receiving an average of 15 robocalls, according to YouMail’s breakdown.

A large number of these are spoofed robocalls—which is when criminals and others call you using numbers that look as if they could be from someone you know but are actually fake, often to swindle you. YouMail says that nearly 40 percent all robocalls made are such scams.

“Robocalls often target the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly,” says Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst in Consumer Reports’ advocacy division. “For example, we’ve heard from the children of elderly consumers that their parents had been harassed into buying worthless products and services they did not want or need,” she says.

Meanwhile, the telephone carriers say they are doing their best to alleviate the problem.

CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, is working on a new technology that will alert consumers when they receive a spoofed call and give them the option to answer or not. Called Shaken/Stir, the technology will begin to be rolled out in spring of next year, though it will take some time to be fully implemented.

And earlier this week, the head of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, called on the telecom industry to implement stronger measures against robocalls by the end of next year.

Referring to Shaken/Stir, he said, “if it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running next year, then we will take action to make sure that it does.”

Regulators have also been getting tougher on robocallers who are flouting the law. This year the Federal Trade Commission has announced a number of enforcement actions against robocallers, including a $120 million fine against a Florida-based timeshare marketing operation for spoofing numbers.

And earlier this month, 35 state attorneys general issued a joint letter urging the federal government to step up efforts to fight illegal robocalls.

Consumer advocates have also long been pushing for action to empower phone users to better manage and block unwanted robocalls.

“Consumers desperately need real protections from these unwanted, annoying, and potentially dangerous robocalls,” Mahoney says.

Consumer Reports advocates have proposed legislation, called the Robocop Act, that would direct the FCC to require telecom providers to enable technology that verifies the accuracy of caller ID information at no additional charge, require providers to offer subscribers optional free robocall-blocking technology, and provide an exemption process for callers who legitimately need to place calls the numbers from unidentified numbers, as a women’s shelter or medical clinic might.

What to Do

As we wait for the day when the tide turns on robocallers, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.

List Your Phone Number With the Do Not Call Registry
By signing up for the Do Not Call Registry, you can request that your landline or cellular phone number be removed from the call lists companies use. That should help reduce the number of calls you get from legitimate telemarketers and robocallers.

What you should know: You’ll still get calls from organizations with which you have established a business relationship; calls that are not commercial, such as school closings, storm warnings, and other civic notices; and calls from nonprofit organizations, including political solicitations.

And you should realize that many dishonest robocallers ignore the laws and will call you anyway.

Sign Up for Your Carrier’s Robocall Alert Service
Many companies, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon, have services that alert you that an incoming robocall may be from a scammer or spammer. In some cases, such services are free, but for a few dollars more per month you can get a more robust version that can block the robocalls from ringing on your phone.

AT&T, for example, offers a basic free service that customers must enable to use. But for $4 per month it offers Call Protect Plus, which the company says is more robust and includes automatic fraud blocking. Verizon offers a screening service called Premium Caller ID for $3 per month. T-Mobile offers a service for no additional charge.

What you should know: While the carriers’ systems are able to successfully notify customers of calls that may be problematic, they are far from perfect. Scammers can still spoof legitimate numbers.

Download a Call-Blocking App
Instead of simply being alerted to incoming robocalls, a call-blocking app can intercept robocalls before they reach you, says Mahoney at Consumer Reports. Among the providers are Nomorobo, which charges $2 per month for its service (there is no cost for landlines), and free apps such as Hiya, Mr. Number, RoboKiller, and YouMail.

What you should know: Though some apps, such as Nomorobo, don’t access your contact lists, some of the free apps do. If you’re planning to download a robocall-blocking app, read the app’s privacy policy first.

Reject Anonymous Calls
One option available from some phone companies is to automatically reject anonymous calls. If you turn this feature on, all anonymous calls are instantly rejected, preventing the caller from even leaving a message.

What you should know: This can help at the margins, but robocalls are not always anonymous. In addition, this may prevent you from receiving legitimate calls from friends, relatives, or others who, for privacy reasons, don’t want their number and other information showing up on caller ID.

If you receive an unwanted call that you believe is spam or a scam, make sure to report it to the FTC (you can make a report online) or to your telecom provider. By reporting unwanted calls, you can help the regulator go after bad actors.