I’d know her voice anywhere. “Rachel from Cardholder Services” has called me so many times throughout the years I’ve got it memorized. The Federal Trade Commission tried to come between us in 2015 by fining Rachel $700,000, but Rachel kept calling. In fact, Rachel called me about a week ago. She sounded strange — not like the Rachel I know and loathe. Someone was impersonating Rachel. Yes, it’s true. “Rachel” is such a successful telemarketing personality that other robocalling scammers are using her name.
Therein lies part of the problem: Robocalls are hard to stop. Despite a diligent game of whack-a-mole — the FTC shut down three massive robocalling rings between January and June of this year — Americans still are receiving an estimated 2.6 billion robocalls per month. And robocalls remain the No. 1 source of consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission. That, despite the fact robocalls have been illegal since 2009 (unless you have given the company permission to call you), and each illegal call is subject to a $16,000 fine.
“Federal regulators have had a tough time enforcing the Do Not Call law to stop illegal robocalls,” said George Slover, of Consumers Union. “Even when the federal government has been able to identify robocall scammers … it’s been difficult to actually recover the money.”
Why? Lots of reasons. Cheap, easy technology allows scammers to place millions of calls from other countries, where they are beyond the reach of U.S. laws. They fake, or “spoof,” the phone numbers from which they are calling, making them hard to track down. Phone companies worry if they shut down a known robocalling number, it might belong to an innocent customer. Plus, when they do block a number, robocallers just switch to another. Here are some of the most common robocalls:
Credit card rate reductions: This is what Rachel is peddling. She asks for as much as $1,000 in exchange for a credit card rate reduction that she never provides.
IRS back taxes: The scammer claims to be with the Internal Revenue Service and demands fees and fines. The Treasury Department says consumers already have lost $54 million to this scheme.
Auto extended warranties: The robocaller pretends to be affiliated with your car manufacturer or dealer and sells bogus warranties.
Pseudo Microsoft tech: The recorded message asks you to log on to your PC and hand over sensitive personal information.
Other common topics include home security systems, search engine optimization and medical alerts.
In their latest devilish innovation, robocallers have been spoofing numbers in your own area code and prefix, which prompts far more people to pick up. They also are experimenting with artificial intelligence that allows the robot to hold a convincing conversation with you, as you can hear in a sample robocall posted by Consumers Union (consumersunion.org) in which the recipient tries to get the caller to admit she’s a robot.
While government and industry struggle to defeat the robots, you can take several steps to protect yourself:
Don’t answer. Simply don’t pick up calls from numbers you don’t know. You could even set your cellphone so that it doesn’t ring if the call is from an anonymous number or a number that’s not in your address book.
Don’t press buttons. Don’t try to opt out of robocalls by using the call’s phone tree. “If you engage with the robocaller in any way … it lets them know they’ve reached a live phone number,” explained Slover. “Your number is then added to a hot list.”
Don’t speak. If a robocall asks you questions, don’t answer. Some robocallers ask, “Can you hear me?” When you say yes, the scammers might use that to claim you said yes to their product or service.
Get on the Do Not Call list. You should sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry because then at least legitimate telemarketers won’t call you. Residents of some states have signed up far more than others.
Complain. If you receive a robocall, the FTC asks that you file a complaint online or by calling 888-382-1222. The agency chooses which robocallers to go after partly based on these complaints.
Sign the petition. Consumers Union is gathering signatures to pressure phone companies to be more aggressive about blocking robocallers. “Nearly 750,000 consumers have joined our campaign and called on the top phone companies to offer free robocall-blocking protection to their customers,” said Slover.
Protect your iPhone. For $1.99 per month, you can get the Nomorobo app, which won an FTC contest seeking robocall slayers. It works by having your calls ring simultaneously on the company’s computers. (The company does not collect your information.) Once Nomorobo determines a call is a robocall, it hangs up for you — typically after one ring.
Protect your Android. Nomorobo will soon be available for Android phones, and you can sign up to be alerted when it’s ready. Meanwhile, CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, provides a list of robocall-blocking apps for Android phones, some free, some for a fee.
Protect your landline.Consumer Reports had members test various landline call blockers, and testers preferred the Digitone Call Blocker, which has a one-time cost of $87 and silently thwarts robocalls, with a red light letting you know that a call has just been blocked. Make sure this device is compatible with your phone before buying it.
Protect your VoIP. Nomorobo was first developed to protect VoIP phones, such as those provided by Verizon Fios and AT&T U-verse. This version of the service is free, and Nomorobo maintains a list of compatible VoIP phone services.