My smartphone rings. It’s a number I don’t recognize. I ignore it and the caller leaves a message, “You will be taken under custody by the local cops,” says a robotic sounding female voice. “There are four serious allegations pressed on your name at this moment…” They leave a phone number to call back — or else. I know right away that it’s a scam, likely one of a half dozen calls I’ll get today. And it’s not even noon yet.
This kind of frustrating little scenario played out more than three billion times in the month of March alone, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, at a cost of more than $9.5 billion annually to people who fall victim to phone scams. A new Harris Poll for anti-robocall app Truecaller, reports one in every ten adults in the U.S. were victims of a phone scam in the past year — with an average loss of nearly $360 per victim.
“So far, March has been worst we’ve ever seen,” YouMail CEO Alex Quilici tells me. “We estimate there was more than 100-million made a day. That’s an astonishing number of robocalls.”
The FTC agrees — in spite of big wins against robocallers in 2017 — 2018 is off to a tough start. “We continue to bring cases and shut down as many folks as we can,” said attorney Janice Kopec, the FTC’s point person on robocalls. “But sophisticated auto-dialers make it really easy for scammers to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world and hide behind fake caller ID information. They also use call spoofing to disguise calls with local phone numbers now a lot too.”
“It’s a sheer numbers game and the economics are simple. [The robocallers] only need the scam to hit a small percentage to fall victim for it to be profitable, added Truecallers’ Head of Growth, Nick Larsson.
So, what are we to do? Do those spam blocker apps even work? Is the trusty “just don’t answer” advice outdated? What happened to the “Do Not Call” Registry? For the second year in a row, we dive head-first into the sleazy world of phone scammers to figure out what — if anything — truly works.
TURN TO YOUR PHONE
A few phone makers now offer built-in spam call alerts that tell you in plain language when a call is probably a fraud.
Samsung calls their version of the feature Smart Call, and it works based on reports of spam call activity, alerting you if the number that’s calling you is known robo-caller. Smart Call comes with to new Samsung Galaxy phones starting with the S7, and includes the Note 8.
Google’s spam blocker doesn’t have a special name, but it’s even more powerful. On Google’s Pixel phones, the default Google Phone app lights up your screen with a bright red warning telling you not to answer the spam calls. It’s already a great feature, but a new update rolling out soon makes it even better by sending spam calls straight to voicemail and never bothering you with them at all. If you don’t have a Pixel phone, you can still download the Google Phone app for Android, which will replace your current Android calling app, and get the same great features.
LET YOUR CARRIER HANDLE IT
Just like the rest of us, wireless carriers are sick and tired of robocalls too. Carriers have to shoulder the weight of millions of robocalls on their network, and they’d love to eliminate the dastardly dialers just as much as the rest of us. All the major carriers now have their own apps to stop spam calls, and most of them are free with your plan.
AT&T’s app can auto-block suspected fraud calls and alert you if a caller is likely a robocall spammer. If you find a spammer using a number that wasn’t picked up, you can easily block them manually as well.
Caller Name ID offers alerts for suspected spam callers before you bother to answer, as well as mark new spam numbers, and share blocked spam numbers with people on your contact list who also have the app.
T-Mobile customers with Android phones get a handy scam-blocker built right into their phones. The feature (which you enable by dialing #662#) automatically blocks known scam call numbers without any additional setup. A second helpful app, also pre-installed on T-Mobile smartphones running Android, is called Name ID. Name ID labels unknown numbers as possible spam if they’ve been reported in the past, which is super handy.
Sprint: Premium Caller ID (iOS, Android, $2.99/Month)
Unlike the previous three carriers, Sprint’s solution to spam call blocking is a bit different. It’s a paid monthly service that lets you register your name so that your calls show up as you whenever you call someone. This helps the carrier figure out who is a real caller and who isn’t, so it can alert you of potential spammers and robocallers. It works with any iOS or Android phone on Sprint’s network, and you don’t have to install any additional apps.
DOWNLOAD AN APP OR TWO
Apps such as Nomorobo, Truecaller, Hiya, RoboKiller, or YouMail really can cull the stream of con-artist calls. Many of the apps are free for at least a week, then cost around two dollars a month or nearly $20 a year after that. (The apps present this to you as “upgrades” or “premium,” which you inevitably want to ditch ads or get the best the tech has to offer.)
I’ve used all of them and really like AT&T’s free Call Protect, as well as Nomorobo — for how simple they are overall. Nomorobo stops working well every three-four months, but if I go into the settings and “refresh” it, it gets better at screening out scam-calls again. YouMail is also great because it delivers a message to known-scammers that your number is out of service, which takes the target off your head — for now.
DO NOT CALL REGISTRY
As much as it might feel like it doesn’t help, it’s still a good practice to add your numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. If your number is on the registry and you do get unwanted calls, report them. Basically, this gives the good-guys at least one way to fight the bad guys. And they really are trying.
On Monday, April 23rd, the Stop Illegal Robocalls Expo is taking over the FCC’s Pepco Edison Place Gallery in Washington, DC. There, experts and inventors will come together to demonstrate the latest in spam-detection technology. If you’re in the area, the expo is free and open to the public.
Apps, devices, and other innovations from companies like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile will be there. Will the ultimate robocall-killing tool show up? We’ll have to wait and see.
“There are solutions out there now, none of them are perfect, but they will significantly reduce the number of these calls,” Kopec said, adding, “if anyone ever calls you and wants you to make some form of payment over the phone, HANG UP. And if you answer a call from someone you don’t know, it can be tempting to engage; press one, give them call, call back, but don’t do it. By engaging, you end up being a target and getting more calls. Hang up and report the call to us.