Stop telephoning me-eh-eh-eh-eh: robocalls explained

Stop telephoning me-eh-eh-eh-eh: robocalls explained

If you’ve ever answered a call from anyone outside your contact list only to hear a recorded message playing back at you, you have just been robocalled. Unfortunately for American consumers, this happens several times a day, seven days a week. Suffice to say, this is beyond annoying—and it’s getting worse.

In their National Robocall Index, YouMail, a telecommunications service provider, revealed that nearly 10 billion robocalls were made by mid-2016 and predicted a total of 30 billion by the end of that year. Furthermore, YouMail announced that American consumers received a total of 30.5 billion robocalls in 2017.

Are robocalls the same as cold calls?

What spam is to email, robocall is to telecommunications devices, such as home phones, mobile phones, and VoIP landlines. There is usually no real human behind a robocall, only an automated, pre-recorded message—as the name suggests, calls are made by computers. On the other hand, cold calls, warm calls, social calls, and a more personalized and targeted form of cold calling salespeople are referring to as “smart calls” all require a live person.

Many types of robocalls are legal, as are emails, SMS/MMS, and phone calls. Unfortunately, they can be abused, too. So how can you tell the good from the bad?

Which are the “good” robocalls?

An example of legitimate robocalls comes from political parties, especially during election season. Their goal is to sway voters to go to another party or solicit donations. They are legally approved by the FCC.

Other examples include robocalls that notify users of canceled flights or airline changes; doctor or dental appointment reminders; class cancellations or school emergencies; and credit card fraud alerts, among others. Robocalls that are made on behalf of non-profit organizations and charities exist as well. But take note: although several of these types are legal, most robocalls are illegal and fraudulent in nature.

Which are  the bad robocalls?

Illegal robocalls generally contact recipients with the intention of stealing something from them. And that something might be your contact number, your financial information, or even your identity.

Here’s a rule of thumb: If you receive a call you didn’t consent to or does not contain emergency or critical information, then the robocall can be considered illegal.

Take note of the list of purported sources of robocalls below. Robocalls that claim to come from these organizations certainly do not. You can be sure that they’re always, always a scam:

  • IRS
  • Social Security Services (SSS)
  • Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
  • Cruise companies
  • Tech support

A new trend in illegal robocalling involves the use of numbers closely resembling those they are contacting. Ailsa Chang, a correspondent for NPR’s Planet Money podcast, documented her experience with this when she received a call from a number with the same area code and first three digits of her own contact number. This is known as neighbor spoofing.

The psychology behind neighbor spoofing is that recipients are more likely to pick up the call should they see a familiar-looking number because they believe the caller might be someone they know, like a colleague or their child’s school.

In this underground, lucrative business, scammers have become more creative, thanks to technology that has made it easier for them to make unwanted calls and more challenging for us to accurately detect and block.

Are you familiar with email spoofing? Read this to learn more about it.

I just enrolled in the National Do Not Call Registry. I shouldn’t be getting those deceptive robocalls now, right?

While it is true that legal businesses doing robocalls honor the National Do Not Call Registry, your average cybercriminal and scammer does not. In fact, numbers in this registry are no longer immune to those annoying robocalls.

Back in 2003, when the registry was first passed, it had been successful in deterring legal businesses from sending out unwanted calls. But things have significantly changed since then. For one thing, the Internet has gained popularity and usage, and the resources needed to make innumerable and inexpensive calls are easy enough to come by. Furthermore, it’s known that majority of these illegal robocalls originate outside the United States, making them difficult (if not impossible) to stop.

I’ve seen YouTube clips of people messing with phone scammers. Can I do that with these robocallers?

We don’t advise it. In fact, both the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the FCC highly encourage phone users to never answer calls from numbers you don’t have in your contact list, from anonymous callers, or from numbers you don’t recognize. Doing otherwise can only make matters worse, as robocallers could be flagging your number for activity. For them, getting any response from a number is a sure sign that it’s active. And an active number could be targeted again and again. That said, ignoring such calls is probably the less thrilling yet the best course of action to take.

So what else can we do to mitigate bad robocalls once and for all?

Below are steps one can take to nip robocalling in the bud:

  • Report the call to the FCC, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and your attorney general. Doing so will help the collective efforts of regulators and phone companies in blocking these numbers.
  • Do not give out your number online or post it publicly in your social media profiles. They will likely be scraped by scammers.
  • Use efficient apps to analyze the kind of call you receive and respond to it accordingly. So far, Nomorobo is (one of) the best in the market, and it won the Robocall Challenge by the FTC several years ago. Other useful apps include Truecaller, YouMail, PrivacyStar, Hiya, and Mr. Number.
  • Go old-school by turning off your landline’s ringer and then feeding the call to an answering machine with a caller ID. You can always return the call if you have determined that the caller is using a legitimate number or has actually left a message worth returning.
  • If you happen to pick up a call from a robocaller, either by accident or just for the heck of it, hang up immediately or don’t answer any question thrown at you. It’s highly likely that it records your voice to use it to authorize the billing of stolen credit cards.
  • Take advantage of added security measures or protocols your voice service providers offer. Late last year, the FCC has passed a rule that gives phone companies the power to proactively block numbers that do not or cannot make outgoing calls.

At this time, there’s no one solution for the complicated problem of nasty robocalls; however, consumers can pay it forward, helping those who are less in the know to stave off robocallers who’d like to rob them blind.

The next time you receive an unwanted call, don’t just flare up. Shut them up for good.

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Jovi Umawing

Knows a bit about everything and a lot about several somethings. Writes about those somethings, usually in long-form.