Harassed by telemarketers? Here’s how to prevent the robocall apocalypse

By | January 2nd, 2017

Brenda Avadian is one of the 226 million Americans whose phone number is on the Federal Do Not Call Registry, an opt-in database of people tired of being harassed by unwanted, and usually automated, telemarketing calls, commonly known as robocalls.

“I’ve been on the list for the last 12 years,” says Avadian, a consultant who lives in Pearblossom, Calif. “Yet we continue to receive calls.”

There are the cheerful, prerecorded messages hawking the latest scams like timeshares, too-good-to-be-true investments and “free” cruises. There are the political ads. Other calls simply start with a long pause — long enough for her to know it’s an automated sales call and to hang up.

And, at least for now, her story ends in frustration.

“I no longer answer the phone unless the number is identified on caller ID,” she says.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Federal Communications Commission has formed a Robocall Strike Force, an industry-led group tasked with developing ways to detect, filter and prevent unwanted robocalls. The agency is encouraging phone providers to develop better call blocking options and is working to identify “bad actors” who unleash millions of automated calls on unsuspecting consumers like Avadian. But it’s a work in progress, as noted in a report to the task force. The Do Not Call List is no magic bullet, offering exemptions for political ads and routinely ignored by renegade robocallers.

If you want help now, you have to help yourself.

The government’s latest Do Not Call Registry Data Book, a registry of information about the database, suggests there are a lot of folks like Avadian. Complaints to the agency about unwanted telemarketing robocalls soared from just under 3.6 million during fiscal 2015 to more than 5.3 million in fiscal 2016. Meanwhile, membership in the registry ballooned to more than 226 million actively registered phone numbers, up from 223 million at the end of fiscal 2015.

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“Spam calls are getting out of control,” says Tony Anscombe, a senior security evangelist at Avast, a Prague-based company that develops security software.

In a recent one-month period, Avast measured 4.3 million unwanted calls made to its own customers by 170,000 telemarketers. The company develops call blockers for cell phones that allow you to block telemarketers and other unwanted contacts in your address book while still protecting your privacy. It’s just one of several solutions that may save you from the coming robocall apocalypse before the federal government can.

Robocalls volume is “unacceptable”

Bikram Bandy, counsel to the director the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, says robocalls have become an “epidemic.”

“We have more complaints than we’ve ever had, and the trend line has been going up,” he says. “Consumers are receiving an unacceptable number of unsolicited calls.”

But a solution isn’t easy. The government tried enforcement, bringing several high-profile cases against the most flagrant offenders. But that just pushed the operations overseas, to places where American authorities could not always reach.

A second limiting factor is technology. Conventional phone lines don’t have sophisticated blocking technology and are easily foiled by robocalling software. The FTC has responded by sponsoring competitions to develop better technology, but adoption rates have been slow, and haven’t kept up with the cutting-edge technology used by robocallers.

American consumers — and particularly those with landlines — are at a disadvantage. And while some cell phone platforms have offered blocking tools for a while, Apple only recently opened its iOS operating system to those who want to block callers.


“We’re trying to continue to push industry to make the technology better,” adds Bandy. “If Americans can put the spam filter on the phone, that’s going to be a game changer.”

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How to fix it now

There are ways to avoid spam calls. The best solution, of course, is not to answer the phone — at all. You can allow the call to go straight to voicemail and connect a transcription service like Google Voice. I’ve used that solution for several years and it works. Voice allows you to send an email to your inbox with a transcript, letting you decide whether to return the call or not. Robocallers don’t stand a chance.

Landline users aren’t out of luck. Consider the problem faced by Kitty Werner, a graphic artist from Waitsfield, Vt. She’d receive automated calls — sometimes a dozen a day — from a scam operation called “Portfolio Review.” Finally, she paid her local phone company, Waitsfield Telecom, an extra $2.25 a month for a service called Telemarketing Call Screening, a filtering application.

When someone dials Werner’s number now, they’re greeted with a recording that says, “The number you have reached does not want to accept calls from telemarketers. If you are a telemarketer, please add this number to your do not call list and hang up now. All other callers may press ‘8’ if they wish to complete the call.”

“We haven’t had any telemarketers,” she says.

If you have an internet voice over IP (VOIP) phone, you have access to more sophisticated options. When Lynne Nabors, a retiree from St. Louis, registered her phone on the Do Not Call registry, it “worked like a charm” — at first.

“But unfortunately the industry found all kinds of ways around. During the election season I was getting 8 to 10 calls or even more a day,” she says. Her solution? A filtering service called Nomorobo, which costs nothing for VOIP phones and $1.99 a month for an iPhone version. Nomorobo uses a feature known as “simultaneous ring” that allows a phone to ring on more than one number at the same time, and allow the service to filter out unwanted calls.

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“It was wonderful,” she says. “Peace reigns supreme at my house again.”

Other solutions, such as Ooma, a VOIP phone service, come with call blocking preinstalled. Ooma claims to have blocked more than 36 million telemarketer and other unwanted calls in the past two years. And just last week, AT&T introduced a new app, which qualified mobile customers can download and use at no additional charge, that filters spam calls. The service, called Call Protect, issues a warning before you pick up a call from telemarketers, politicians, or debt collectors.

But the rise of robocalls can’t be ended with only technology. “Our state and federal governments need stronger laws against robocalls and scams,” says Janet Heller, a retired English teacher from Portage, Mich., and a frequent recipient of unsolicited calls. “Punishments may deter the people who torment citizens with robo-phone calls and scam calls.”

No two ways about it, though: This problem may get worse before it gets better.

“The rise in unwanted calls is staggering,” says Jan Volzke, a vice president at Seattle-based Hiya, a company that develops call blocking and caller ID services. “There is no evidence that the robocall problem is going away.”

Victims are slowly fighting back, but it will take widespread adoption of the technology and a few more innovation cycles before the robocallers call it a day. In the end, rising costs — not fear of law enforcement and certainly not fear of upsetting consumers — are likely to drive them out of business.

That day can’t come soon enough.



  • FQTVLR

    It appears the Do Not Call list is simply a guide for telemarketers to know when they have valid numbers.

  • The Original Joe S

    I never answer the land line. My answering machine deters callers, but robocallers leave a message. There’s one obnoxious gang “this is your final notice to lower your interest rate. Press 1 now to speak with one of our “DO NOT CALL LIST – IGNORING” scumbags. I press 1, and leave it open. When scumbag comes on the line, he wastes his time.
    I never answer a call on my cell from an unfamiliar number. Message tells ’em to leave a voicemail. Peace on them……

  • fshaff

    My phone company offered a package to me that included caller ID for less than what I was already paying. If I don’t recognize the number and let it go to voice mail, they usually hang up. Same thing with my cell phone. Have noticed a big drop in unwanted robo calls since I started doing this.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Nomorobo is great. Highly recommend it.

  • Perhaps the solution is to register all the FCC Commissioners, executives, and staff for all sorts of contests, products, and services offered by telemarketers…

    Wanna bet a world-class solution is hammered out in 5 business days?

  • Carchar

    Our Panasonic landline phones from Costco came with a call blocking feature, but you have to block each separate number. When repeat numbers come up on the caller ID, we block them. Unfortunately, you can only block 250 numbers. We have found that certain robocallers do stop after a couple of months, so we just erase those. Yes, it is work to stop them, especially those that call from different numbers, but worth the few minutes of time it takes to block them. We, too, only answer a familiar number. I have a cousin who has no caller ID, but only answers when she knows the person leaving a message.

  • Nigel Appleby

    How do you stop Canadian telemarketers calling numbers in the USA and US telemarketers calling Canadian numbers? Or telemarketers from outside the country, with the number of off shore call centre’s in use today anything could happen.

  • Rebecca

    One thing I’ve never been able to understand is how these robocalls and/or telemarketing calls are profitable. Someone, somewhere is making a profit doing it, or no one would be doing it. I’ve never met anyone that liked this type of call; so who are these people? I’m afraid it may be the elderly and/or disabled folks that are being clearly taken advantage of that are being targeted – everyone else hangs up. What a terrible, unconscionable business model.

    I can understand political robocalls somewhat – although you’d think market research would show a politician their potential constituents don’t want the calls.

  • redragtopstl

    When we had U-verse TV, the caller ID displayed on the screen and it was easy to screen unwanted or unknown calls. Unfortunately, U-verse TV got crazy expensive after the promo period ended, so we switched to DirecTV.

    Although other people we know with DirecTV are able to get on-screen caller ID, our main receiver won’t allow it. (One of our 2 receiver boxes is specifically designed for an HD TV, and it’s that box that won’t accept caller ID. I checked w/ DirecTV and that’s what they told me.) We do have VOIP with the new package, however, so I may look into Nomorobo or a couple of stand-alone caller ID boxes.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The problem is that the Do Not Call list works pretty well, but only for (a) callers that are covered, and (b) legitimate telemarketers.

    Most of the spam calls I get are either callers who aren’t covered (i.e. political calls) or outright scam artists (i.e. “I am from Windows, I will help you with your computer”) who don’t care about the Do Not Call list.

    For these calls, if Nomorobo works for you, I highly recommend it.

  • BubbaJoe123

    If Nomorobo works, definitely get it. Your phone rings once, and then cuts out if it’s a robocall. After a few weeks, my brain doesn’t even acknowledge the first ring, and only “notices” if it rings a second time.

  • Fishplate

    Ah, Rachel from Card Services…I always press one, and start the conversation by asking her (or him) what they are wearing. It’e entertaining, wastes their time, and usually stops calls fro a while.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Yeah, it does require simultaneous ring. Basically, it’s a really ingenious “hack” of the simultaneous ring feature. Time Warner Cable voice does support it (they actually added it to their own page, so you can turn it on from directly within the TWC website), but not all providers do.

  • pauletteb

    Phone numbers show up on my TV screen, so I don’t even have to check caller ID on my phone . . . very convenient.

  • pauletteb

    When I’m in one of those moods . . .

  • Bill___A

    The way to fix this is at the carrier level. Telephone numbers can be spoofed, but these calls still come from an originating carrier and some sort of route. Until the phone companies get a handle on managing this, the calls are not going to stop. One can find out which ISP junk emails from from, one needs to be able to find and isolate these calls too. Legislation needs to be put in place requiring every carrier to put this software in place and yes, it does exist.

  • Steve Rabin

    I have had Nomorobo for a few years now. I used to get tons of unsolicited calls…now I get practically none. And it’s good–it seems to know a “legitimate” robocall from a not so savory one–e.g I do get robocalls from my local congressperson that she will be having a public forum–and these go through as I want them to. It’s free too–the only drawback is that it only works on VoIP systems, not traditional analog phone lines.

  • Annie M

    If people do not take the time to keep reporting every call they get every time they get one, the Do Not Call system is even more useless then it already is.

    We have nomorobo.com and it was one of the best things we ever did. We get up to 10 calls a day that we hear one ring and the call is gone. If a small guy can put together the technology to do this so can the phone companies

  • Alan Gore

    I have stopped using the landline completely. Used to need it for the house alarm/sensor system, but now we’ve upgraded to Insteon, which works through smartphones.

  • The Original Joe S

    oh, Rachel, hah? The message first part is cut off because the blurb starts immediately when the circuit closes, but my ESAD message is playing for about 10 or 15 seconds. That’s why I never knew the bimbo’s name.

    One time I got into it with one of them. He was arrogant, nasty, and vulgar, so I drew upon my vast literary experience to insult him using many nasty things I’d come across in my travels. One of many was my special invitation to him to come over for a poignant carborundum procotological exam followed by a 12 gauge enema……. I also mentioned that I knew his mother, who was a really good sport……

  • Altosk

    When the scammers call, I tell my kid to tell the guy on the other end of the line everything she knows about “Paw Patrol.” It’s surprisingly effective.

  • The Original Joe S

    I know Paw Patrol. I have grandkids.

  • Rebecca

    I am SO going to do this with team umizoomi. Laughing thinking about it already.

  • Carol Molloy

    Technology, not legislation, is the solution. Today’s legislation only make life difficult for legitimate businesses. In the attempt to constrain annoying calls, handcuffs are placed on all businesses. The cost of complying with the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the 50 states applicable consumer telemarketing laws simultaneously is staggering. Since the “bad guys” ignore the law intentionally, it is adding tremendous costs to businesses with meager relief for consumers, in my opinion.

    I’m not arguing for no legislation, as consumers must have legal recourse where it can be helpful and preventative. Simply that tightening the legal noose has had zero impact on the dedicated scammers.

    I’ve used nomorobo.com for years. It works beautifully, case in point that technology can accomplish what legislation cannot.

  • The Cosmic Avenger

    Actually, I use my Google Voice number everywhere, including in place of my landline. Anyone on my contact list who calls rings my home (landline) phone, and when close friends and family members call, it rings all my phones (home, cell, office) simultaneously. After keeping my landline off of any account or record for years, I hardly get any telemarking calls at home any longer. One every 2-3 days, if that.

    Google Voice…it’s not just for cell phones any more! ;)

  • “I’m afraid it may be the elderly and/or disabled folks that are being
    clearly taken advantage of that are being targeted – everyone else hangs
    up.”

    Right there is your ‘profit’ I’m afraid.

    Theirs is not a business model at all, it’s CRIMINAL activity.

  • The Do Not Call list is a toothless joke . . . . rather like the Better Business Bureau.

    My smartphone is also my business line, but do I answer at all? No I don’t unless I recognize the number.

    That can cost me business of course, but as 98% of calls are scammers it’s a risk I am happy to take.

  • LeeAnneClark

    AACK! I didn’t know about that telemarketing screening service. I just cancelled my land line a couple of months ago, which I did NOT want to do (since I’d had that number for decades). Although I’m not convinced it would have worked in my case.

    My story takes a frightening turn.

    I work from home most of the time, and I was getting plagued with calls on my landline from companies trying to sell solar panels and/or home improvement services. I don’t know where exactly they got my number from – public records about property ownership maybe? We own a house in an affluent area, so we were prime targets. But I learned the hard way that they not only had my number, but my address.

    Why didn’t I just let the calls go to voice mail? For a number of reasons. I’ve had this number for decades, since long before cell phones, and I have many aging relatives who only have this number for me. This is also the number that many organizations and professional services have for me (doctors, professional contacts.) What I learned is that these telemarketers can spoof telephone numbers on your caller ID so that it appears to be a legitimate call! If I didn’t recognize the number at all, I’d let it go to voice mail – but sometimes I was expecting a call, or had heard that a relative was in ill health, so I’d answer calls. These telemarketers are good – they often start out sounding as if they are someone you know. And that’s how I ended up constantly finding myself on the phone with people trying to sell me solar or home improvement.

    A couple of months ago I answered one. He started talking to me as if he was a friend of my husband’s, but I soon figured out he’s just another damn telemarketer. So I said something angry, and was about to hang up on him when he started spewing out details about my house! My address, what my house looks like, my neighbor’s houses – and then he said he was sending some friends over to rape me.

    I realized later that, knowing my address, he was able to get all of those details right off Google Earth. I assume that’s what he did, anyway. Maybe my angry utterance was the rejection that was his final straw for him that day, and I’m the lucky sap he went off on. But it scared the pee outta me!

    That was it. I cancelled my land line that day. I’m now dealing with having to figure out all the places that only had that number for me and my family – I assume that will eventually work itself out. But I’m sure I’m missing some calls I would have preferred to get in the process.

  • LeeAnneClark

    This isn’t working. I just cancelled my landline, but now I’m getting more robocalls than ever on my cell phone! I block every one as soon as I get the call, but it seems every call is from a different number. I get a ton of calls from a recording saying “Hi! This is Lisa from the Green Company!”, and every time it’s from a different number. So the blocking is doing nothing for me.

  • LeeAnneClark

    There’s another type too: the telemarketers whose systems “spoof” phone numbers. In my case, these were usually callers selling solar panels and/or home improvement. They aren’t “scams” – they are selling legitimate products, although using a very scammy process for doing so.

    They are usually large call centers that contract with solar and home improvement companies to telemarket for them. And there is NO WAY to get off their lists. You can’t block their numbers – they spoof their number so what you see in the caller ID is in no way related to the number they are actually calling from. And you can’t report them because they won’t reveal the name of their call center, OR the name of the company they are calling for. The only way to find out is to actually book an appointment and have them show up for it – then and ONLY then can you find out who they are. And I”m not doing that.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Exactly. And right now the carriers aren’t talking. I learned this the hard way myself – after I had a telemarketer threaten to come to my house and rape me (he knew my address), I reported it to the police. They promptly informed me that there was not a damn thing they can do. The number on the caller ID was a spoof, and the carriers won’t tell them where the call originated from.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Reporting doesn’t work. As I noted in a comment above, many telemarketers these days spoof the phone number, so what you see on the caller ID is not their number. And they often won’t tell you the name of the company they are calling for until you book an appointment for a rep to come to your house to give you a sales pitch. So what are you going to report?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yeah, until the telemarketer responds with a string of profanities and threats to come over to your house and rape you, and then SAYS YOUR ADDRESS, and what your house looks like!

    That’s what happened to me. Lesson learned: just hang up. You never know when your rejection of a telemarketer is the one that sends him over the edge.

  • PsyGuy

    The bigger issues that contributes to robocalls is 1) How the cost of a phone call has come down to almost nothing using VOIP technology. 2) How VOIP technology makes long distance calls outside the scope of enforcement practical. The DNC (that’s Do Not Call) registry is a joke, it sounds great but scammy telemarketers don’t care about rules and regulations. No law, regulation, or rule of the FCC is going to keep some call center in India or the Philippines from robocalling you.

    There is another option, you can get a virtual assistant, though it’s kind of pricy, about $60/month on the low end. You forward all your calls to the virtual assistant, a real person answers and screens the call and then forwards it to your mobile phone or another phone number.

  • PsyGuy

    Your number may still be available, they may not have recycled it yet.

  • PsyGuy

    Agreed

  • PsyGuy

    I admittedly don’t have a landline anymore.

  • PsyGuy

    They just Google earthed your home address. I’d hang up before then.

  • PsyGuy

    The businesses are very lean. They hire telemarketing companies in India, Philippines, etc. and using VOIP (in case you’re wondering you yourself can use Skype to set the caller ID to a local number) and they pay the telemarketers solely on commission. If they don’t sell they don’t make anything. The telemarketer charges an account fee per month and then a commission for each booked appointment or referral.

  • PsyGuy

    What you need to do is get a Google Voice number use that for everything. When you canceled your land line it made your mobile your new primary number, that’s why they are calling your mobile.

  • PsyGuy

    I know Rachel from card services. I always picture her as a brunette, brown eyes, sundress, who is working on her degree in comparative literature.

  • Rebecca

    This quirk about setting whatever number you want actually helps me screen calls. I have a San Diego phone number, but I live in Atlanta. So when I see a southern California area code, unless it’s family, I know it’s almost certainly spam.

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