A person mad about robocalls smashing a smartphone with a hammer.
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow

Robocalls have become the bane of Carlos Brezina’s existence.

His phone, he says, rings day and night with them, annoying him to the point where he no longer answers unless he knows for certain who’s calling. He has removed a landline from his bedroom. The Bethesda, Md., resident says he’s missing important calls from faraway friends and family as a result. Caller ID, he says, is useless, because “call spoofing,” which lets scammers’ calls come through showing fake numbers that often look local, has become so prevalent.

“I’ve even gotten calls from myself!” Brezina says of calls that, bizarrely, come in spoofing his phone number.

“Probably around 80 percent of the calls to my cell phone and landline are from bothersome idiots,” says Craig Steimling of Belleville, Ill. “It’s gotten so that my 5-year-old grandson yells, ‘Junk call!’ every time the phone rings.” (Learn how to deal with robocalls.)

Brezina and Steimling echo the frustration of millions of people who feel their phones are under siege by autodialed spam and scam calls. Consumers shared their stories with us, complaining of chronic calls with suspicious offers for “free” trips and vacations, and of robocallers attempting to bamboozle them into giving up their Social Security number. Some told of being threatened with arrest if they didn’t immediately pony up unpaid taxes or settle a debt. They griped about being awakened from sleep by scam calls, of being interrupted while “on the pot,” of the amount of time wasted running around the house searching for a ringing phone only to find a robot on the other end. One woman, saying her brother may have “anger issues,” described a time he reached his robocall breaking point and shattered his phone with a hammer.

More on Robocalls

It’s enough to make you feel nostalgic for those simpler times, not so long ago, when we were bothered only by human telemarketers hawking insurance or aluminum siding, albeit like clockwork at the family dinner hour.

By every measure, the number of unwanted robocalls to our cell phones and landlines has reached an epidemic level, and if you think the crisis has grown exponentially worse in just the past year, that’s because it has. In 2018, a record 48 billion robocalls were placed to phones in the U.S., according to YouMail, a company that blocks and tracks robocalls. That works out to 1,500 robocalls per second—which is 56.8 percent more robocalls than there were in 2017.

The deluge is partly the result of advances in telephone technology that let robocallers autodial thousands of numbers all over the world using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) in seconds for a fraction of what it would have cost just a short time ago. “It’s become very easy and cheap to make an enormous number of calls, to the point where you don’t even need technical expertise,” says Alex Quilici, YouMail’s CEO. “If I wanted to pick a borough in New York City and hit every person with a voicemail telling them to go visit some website, I can do it for a couple of thousand bucks.”

But the onslaught is also a function of just how thorny the robocalls problem has been to solve. Wily robocallers seem to stay a few steps ahead of telephone companies and government regulators working to thwart them. The National Do Not Call Registry, for instance, established almost 16 years ago to stop legal telemarketers from calling people who didn’t want to be contacted, has failed to stop the many fraudsters who pay no attention to the list. National contests to find robocall solutions have led to call-blocking services such as Nomorobo, which, though useful, are often limited by the fact that the lists of suspicious numbers they rely on can’t possibly be updated frequently enough and because spoofing numbers has become so commonplace. Criminal robocalling operations have set up call centers abroad, complicating the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to clamp down on them.

As a result, robocalls have today become the largest source of consumer complaints to the FTC, accounting for more than 65 percent of the total. “What’s the level of annoyance that you have to reach with robocalls so that the phone company will do something about it?” asks an exasperated Brezina.

But in fact, some recent developments are cause for optimism. A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Thune, R-S.D., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act was introduced in Congress in January. It seeks to beef up the existing Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991 by making fines for intentional robocalling violations bigger and easier for the FCC to obtain.

Consumers could also have a new weapon against spoofed robocalls as early as sometime this year. The telecom industry has promised to roll out new technology that, though not stopping robocalls on its own, would identify calls as potentially fraudulent so that consumers can decide whether to answer. If passed, the TRACED Act will also ensure that phone companies implement this technology.

Technology that identifies calls as spam or scams could be a huge service to consumers like Mike Price, a recovering cancer patient from Denver, N.C., who says he must answer calls from numbers he doesn’t recognize. “I regularly get calls from medical specialists to inform me of test results and upcoming appointments,” he says. “I receive several bogus calls a day, but I’m afraid to not answer the phone.”


Communication Breakdown

Part of what complicates the problem of stopping robocalls, spoofed or otherwise, is that not all of the calls are against the law. Certain legitimate entities, in certain situations, are allowed to make autodialed calls to you. (Just because they’re legitimate, of course, doesn’t mean they’re any less annoying.) The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a number of proposals related to the TCPA that, depending on what it decides, could result in more robocalls. But for now, here’s the basic playbook, complete with gray areas. It’s also noteworthy that there are more protections against robocalls made to your cell phone than to your landline.

Calls That Are Mostly Legal
Political parties and candidates, as well as charities, are legally allowed to autodial you with a prerecorded message to your home landline. The same is true of callers whose messages are purely informational: the pharmacy telling you that your prescription is ready, your child’s school to say there’s a weather delay, your doctor’s office to confirm an appointment.

Autodialed telemarketing calls from legitimate outfits to your home landline are also legally permitted, provided the person on the other end is a human being; for prerecorded messages, your written consent is required. To help consumers who want to avoid these calls is one reason the Do Not Call Registry was created in the first place. Worth knowing: These calls are prohibited before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m.

Payment reminder calls to your landline—for example, when your credit card company robocalls you to alert you that your payment is due—are generally legal without prior consent. Robocalls from debt collection agencies, which are also payment reminders, are legal to landlines and require no previous consent to be called. Moreover, these calls are not covered by the Do Not Call Registry.

Calls That Are Mostly Illegal
Almost all autodialed or prerecorded calls—even those from charities, political parties, etc.—made to your cell phone are illegal, per the TCPA, unless you have given your express permission beforehand to be contacted this way or the call is for an emergency. If you get these calls to your cell phone and don’t remember giving permission, it’s possible that you checked a terms-of-service box or provided a phone number during a sign-up process. Doing either can constitute consent to be called, per FCC regulations.

Spoofed calls are illegal if the intent is to commit fraud. Certain spoofed calls are permitted. A women’s shelter is allowed to spoof a number to prevent an abuser from knowing a woman’s location. Police departments will also disguise their numbers when conducting investigations. Doctors sometimes use spoofing technology to make patient calls from their personal phones to avoid disclosing their private contact information.

Of course, the people who are making fraudulent calls are, by design, operating outside the law and pay no attention to the rules. According to YouMail, of the robocalls placed in 2018, 40 percent were scam calls trying to trick consumers into giving away valuable personal information or defraud them out of their money.

To help sort out the good calls from the bad ones, the FTC publishes a daily roster of blacklisted numbers. These are numbers that have received a significant volume of consumer complaints that apps may use to help update their list of numbers to block. Phone companies, some of which have developed their own call-blocking software, also may use the list to either block calls or inform their customers when they believe a number may be problematic. (More on this later.)

Many of these illegal robocalls originate from overseas criminal rings, according to the FTC, and they tend to target the elderly and recent immigrants because both are deemed more receptive to come-ons. The scammers find people to target by consulting phone directories and mailing lists, including “suckers lists”—databases of individuals believed to be susceptible to fraud.

There are many types of fraudulent calls, but the “IRS fraud” and “Social Security fraud” are two common ones. To trick you, criminals spoof a real phone number from the IRS or the Social Security Administration and pose as agents from these agencies. In the IRS scam, the caller may threaten you with jail if you don’t pay taxes he claims you owe, insisting that you pay immediately or he’ll dispatch the police. In the Social Security scam, the caller might say your file lacks necessary personal information, such as your Social Security number. Or she may claim to need additional information to increase your benefit payment, or threaten to terminate your benefits if you don’t confirm the information she has.

If you get any such calls, the FTC suggests that you hang up and report the call to 877-FTC-HELP or go to the FTC’s Complaint Assistant page.


Help end 'spoofed' robocalls! Demand phone companies put anti-robocall technology to work by signing our petition.
 

Delayed Corporate Reaction

For years, phone companies largely looked the other way as the robocall crisis exploded, consumer advocates say. “They dragged their feet and failed to truly solve the problem,” says Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst in the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “The FCC gave phone companies the right to offer advanced call-blocking services in 2015, and to block certain types of clearly illegally spoofed robocalls even without consumer consent in 2017. But still today, not all companies are doing so.”

The industry argues that it has been working hard to stop illegal and unwanted robocalls while being sensitive to the reality that there are some robocalls that consumers may want to receive and others that are perfectly legal. Blocking legal robocalls could expose the industry to lawsuits from companies that can claim they lost money because they were illegally prevented from doing business, as could be the case with certain telemarketers. Still, the industry vows its determination to get robocalls under control. “Member companies are fully committed to protecting consumers and will continue to work closely with the FCC, FTC, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to combat the problem,” says a spokesperson from CTIA, the wireless industry association.



A Tech Solution From Carriers

If technology in the hands of bad actors has given rise to the tsunami of illegal robocalls, so it may be that technology supplies a solution. Eric Burger, the FCC’s chief technology officer, has said consumers can expect major phone carriers to begin to roll out a game-changing new system called STIR/SHAKEN this year. T-Mobile has already started to deploy it in a limited fashion.

The acronym STIR/SHAKEN is a tortured one: “STIR” stands for “Secure Telephony Identity Revisited,” and “SHAKEN” stands for “Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs.” Creating the technology is just one part of the broader mission of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions/Session Initiation Protocol (ATIS/SIP) forum, an industry-led FCC advisory task force.

The hope is that STIR/SHAKEN will help reduce spoofed robocalls by assigning a digital fingerprint to calls. That fingerprint allows carriers to immediately know the real identity of the caller when a call passes through any part of the phone system on its way to your device. If a caller is illegally spoofing a number to place robocalls, it will be faster and easier for telecom providers to shut it down and for law enforcement authorities to find and prosecute those responsible, Burger says. “With STIR/SHAKEN you’ll be better able to trust caller ID,” he says, because it will contribute vital information to blocking services to target probable spam and fraud.

On the other hand, if the caller is legitimately spoofing a number (as your doctor might) the call will go through because the carrier will have confirmed that the caller hiding his number has the right to do so, says Jim McEachern, principal technologist at ATIS.

But just having the major phone carriers onboard is not enough for caller-authentication technology to work optimally. Many Americans, particularly those who live in more rural areas, still have old-fashioned copper-wire landline phones, and their phone service providers are not fully digitized and thus cannot support STIR/SHAKEN.

That means there will be gaps in protection. As the major carriers become more impregnable, the “bad guys” will move to the more vulnerable old-school telecoms to make their illegal, unwanted robocalls, says Gerry Christensen, a telecom expert and CEO of Mind Commerce, a research company that specializes in phone systems and networking technology.

The FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, has said that he’s committed to making sure that all telecoms deploy STIR/SHAKEN and that he has warned the industry that the agency won’t tolerate foot dragging. “If it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running in 2019, then we will take action to make sure that it does,” he said in a November announcement.

Consumer advocates want the companies to do more than just make the tech available. “We’re encouraged the FCC chairman says robocalls are a top priority,” CR’s Mahoney says. “But the FCC needs to make sure that this system is effective for all consumers, which requires getting all the phone providers to participate, and that all consumers are able to stop unwanted spoofed calls for free.”



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.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.