Illustration of a smartphone with a burglar's mask.

If it seems as though you've been getting more annoying automated phone calls than ever before, it's because you probably have. In 2017 alone, more than 30 billion robocalls were made in the U.S., estimates YouMail, a provider of voicemail and call-blocking services. While some were legitimate—such as calls to your home phone for debt collection, requests for charitable donations, and reminders about doctor’s appointments, many were illegal.

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission took another step to reduce the number of illegal robocalls you receive. The agency announced that it had filed a formal complaint in federal court against a few companies that the FTC says facilitate billions of these calls. According to the FTC, many used phone numbers from the Do Not Call Registry or made calls with spoofed caller IDs, so it appears that the call is coming from someone who lives in your neighborhood. The robocalls deceptively pitched everything from auto warranties to debt-relief services, according to the FTC.

More on Robocalls

The FTC’s complaint mentions three people, James Christiano, Aaron Michael Jones, and Andrew Salisbury. The complaint alleges that Christiano controls the companies that operate TelWeb, an automated-dialing platform that has been used for making billions of illegal robocalls. The other two men allegedly connected telemarketers to TelWeb’s system.

“This case shows that the FTC will keep using every tool it has to fight illegal robocalls,” said Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Andrew Smith. “We will go after not only robocallers, but also companies like these who give robocallers the platform and tools to deceive the public and violate the law.”

While the FTC’s complaint is good news for consumers, the case will ultimately be decided by the court. 

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to stop or at least minimize the annoyance of these calls and potential of being scammed by them. Telephone carriers, third-party companies, and robocall experts have developed tools and advice for dealing with these calls, says Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The group has been calling for telephone companies to provide free robocall blocking technology and for both the industry and the federal government to do more to stop the calls.

Know Their Tricks

The first step in the fight against robocallers is to understand the ways they try to trick you into giving them your attention, says David Frankel, a California-based telecommunications professional who has taken up the fight against robocalls. 

One common ploy is called spoofing. The robocaller, using software, transmits a number other than the one he's actually calling from, causing it to show up on your phone's caller ID. Sometimes robocallers send numbers that belong to the Internal Revenue Service, your utility, or a company such as Microsoft. If you have caller ID with name, a feature of most landline phones and some cell phones, you will see the name of the agency or company the number is assigned to. Sometimes robocallers simply spoof an "official" looking number, such as one with a Washington, D.C., 202 area code, to make a call look legitimate, Frankel says.  

Robocallers posing as the IRS may try to trick you into paying taxes you don't actually owe by threatening you with arrest. Or, pretending to be computer tech support, they might attempt to charge you to remove viruses they falsely claim are hiding in your computer. Claiming to be from your power company, scammers may threaten to shut off your electricity unless you pay a bogus overdue bill. 

The latest version of spoofing is what's known as neighbor spoofing. Robocallers transmit a number with the same area code and exchange as your own. "It encourages people to answer the phone because they think it's somebody in their community," Frankel explains.

Another common approach robocallers use to disguise their identity, says Frankel, is to call anonymously by transmitting no caller ID info. Such calls show up on your caller ID with such terms as "private," "unavailable," or "unknown."

In other cases, robocallers instruct their phone carrier to list their number under a name that's meant to confuse you, such as "Card Member Services," says Frankel. If you answer, Foss says, the company may try to sell you something, for example a service in which, for a couple of hundred dollars, they call your credit company and try to negotiate a lower interest rate, something you can do yourself.

What to Do

While nothing can prevent every robocall, there are steps you can take to reduce the number of robocalls you receive and deal with the ones that get through.

Use Call Blocking
One of the best ways to reduce robocalls is to use robocall-blocking technology that intercepts robocalls before they reach you, says Mahoney.

Several technologies are available, including services from your phone company or a third-party, equipment that you purchase and connect to your landline phone system, and apps that you install on your cell phone.

With many systems, the technology automatically intercepts calls that appear on blacklists of known numbers that robocallers use. Depending on the system, it may block the calls entirely, send them to voicemail, or prevent the calls from proceeding unless the caller enters a certain number, something the automatic dialing machine robocallers can't do. Some systems also let you create a "white list" of numbers that you don't want blocked.

The best systems update their list of numbers frequently, as robocallers change the numbers they spoof, says Mahoney. If a robocall gets through, you often can add it to the block list manually and report it to the system provider. Nomorobo says that it keeps adding new numbers that robocallers use.

Some call-blocking services and apps are free or have a one-time cost of just a dollar or two. Nomorobo, free for landlines, costs cell phone users $2 monthly after a two-week free trial.

But you can pay more than $100 for blocking equipment, such as the Call Control Home device, that you connect to your landline phone. That may be your only option if you have old-fashioned copper-line phone service instead of Internet-based digital phone service, says Foss.

Check with your telephone provider or search the web to explore your call-blocking options. Unfortunately, none of these systems will likely be effective against neighbor spoofing, as these calls use actual numbers belonging to people local to you and change them often, sometime after every call, say Frankel. (One option is Nomorobo's smart phone app, which sends every call from a certain area code and exchange to voicemail if it's not in your phone's contact list.)

Don't Answer Unfamiliar Calls
An effective way of dealing with all types of robocalls is to not answer a call from anyone you don't recognize on your caller ID, says Foss. If the call is to your landline, use an answering machine to screen it. Otherwise, wait to see if the caller leaves a voicemail message. If you decide to return the call but are uncertain about its legitimacy, don't use the number that shows up on caller ID or that was left in the message. It could lead you back to a scammer, says Foss. Instead, try to find the number on your own, perhaps by searching the web for the name of the caller or, if it's a company you do business with, by checking a prior bill.

Require Caller Input
You can set up some call-blocking technology, such as the Sentry Active Call Blocker and CenturyLink's "No Solicitation" service, to greet callers with a message requiring them to enter a number such as 0 or 1 before the call can proceed. (Nomorobo does this by default for suspected robocallers.) The technique won't necessarily stop live telemarketers.

Block Anonymous Calls
Another option available from some phone companies and call-blocking equipment is to automatically reject anonymous calls. The downside is that 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, says Foss.

Don't Engage
No matter how angry or frustrated you become when you get a robocall, hang up immediately, advises Frankel. Calling back or following the instructions to talk to a representative, even if it's to complain, may only invite more calls, says Foss. The same thing can happen if the message invites you to press a number to stop future calls, the FTC warns.

Don't Blame Your Neighbors
If you receive what appears to be a local call with a telemarketing message or no message at all, it's likely a case of neighbor spoofing, says Foss. Resist calling back to inquire or complain. The person who owns the spoofed number is also a victim, says Frankel. Conversely, if someone calls you because a robocaller spoofed your number when contacting them, be ready to calmly explain the situation.