Smartphone dial
How to block robocalls on landlines and smartphones. edar/Pixabay

If automated telephone calls have been blowing up your phone, you're not alone. Recent data released by the United States Federal Trade Commission revealed the robocall business is booming, with complaints skyrocketing in 2017.

Four and a half million people filed complaints with the FTC about robocalls over the course of the year—more than one million more than the 3.4 million people who filed such complaints in 2016.

The FTC also provided details about the most common types of robocalls, which read like a checklist if you’ve had the displeasure of answering the phone and being greeted by the automated voice on the other side.

The most common types of calls were:

  • Reducing debt (credit cards, mortgage, student loans, etc.)

  • Dropped call or no message

  • Vacations and timeshares

  • Warranties and protection plans

  • Calls pretending to be government, businesses, or family and friends

  • Medical and prescriptions

Driving the massive uptick in automated calls is access to cheap technology that allows callers to game the system and avoid mechanisms that would otherwise block them. Voice over IP (VoIP) calling systems have become affordable and allow foreign call centers to relentlessly dial helpless consumers.

The VoIP technology also enables other behavior that allows spammers to bypass systems designed to stop them, like caller ID spoofing or “neighbor” spoofing. This allows the caller to disguise their number to appear like a local caller, making it more likely the recipient will pick up the call—only to be greeted by an automated voice.

Being inundated with these calls can make a person feel like there is no respite from the robocalls. Unfortunately, a lot of tools originally designed to protect consumers cannot protect against the evolving technology used to spam victims—but there are still some options available.

How To Block Robocalls

The first step to take to fight back against robocalls is to sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry. The service, provided by the FTC, allows consumers to register their cell phone and home phone number and will place that number on a list that prevents telemarketers from calling.

It’s worth noting that putting a number on the Do Not Call Registry will only stop calls from legitimate telemarketing firms that abide by the rules. It does nothing to prevent calls from overseas, where operators feel no obligation to follow U.S. law.

When the calls keep coming despite having a number registered on the Do Not Call list, start reporting them to the FTC. The government agency has a form online that makes it easy to report unwanted robocalls. The calls can also be reported by calling 888-382-1222. The agency often decides what robocallers to target based on the number of complaints, so reporting calls can help push the agency into action.

For blocking the unwanted robocalls that the FTC can’t catch, sign up for a third-party app that can help prevent the calls from coming through. A favorite of consumers—and the FTC—is Nomorobo , an app that won the FTC’s Robocall Challenge.

Nomorobo operates by using a feature called “simultaneous ring.” When enabled, simultaneous ring will ring on more than one number at the same time. Nomorobo becomes the first number and uses the simultaneous ring feature to screen the call before it rings on the user’s device.

If the app determines the call is legitimate, it will allow it to move forward. If it’s an illegal robocall, Nomorobo will block it. The user’s phone will still ring once but will stop immediately after, letting them know that Nomorobo stopped the call.

Nomorobo is available for free for personal use on landlines. It is also available for Android and iPhone, though not for free. The mobile version of Nomorobo costs $1.99 per month per device, which may well be worth it if the phone is ringing off the hook with fake calls.

If Nomorobo isn’t cutting it, telecommunications industry trade group CTIA has put together a list of apps that can block unwanted calls and texts. The list of apps are available for Android and for iOS , and offer a range of services. Some of the apps are available for free. Others, like Nomorobo, charge a fee for the service.

For those who still have landline devices, call blockers are available to kill robocalls before they reach the line. These tools are often more expensive than app-based solutions for mobile devices but require a one-time fee and will stomp out most unwanted calls.

A Consumer Reports test of different landline call blockers determined that the Digitone Call Blocker was the favorite of most consumers. Other options like the Sentry 2 are also available for those in search of a more budget-friendly option.

Beyond these solutions—which unfortunately aren’t guaranteed to put a stop to all the calls as spammers keep developing new techniques—the best option for consumers is to prod the government into action.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has identified robocalls as one of its top consumer complaints and earlier this year approved rules that will allow telephone service providers and mobile carriers to block robocalls that are identified to be using number spoofing strategies.

The rules encourage carriers to use their technology to determine if a call is from a number that hasn’t been assigned by a service provider. Those calls are generally spoofed numbers, and the carrier would be allowed to prevent those calls from connecting.

Once the rules officially go into effect, it will be on the carriers to block the calls—which they aren’t guaranteed to want to do. The FCC passed rules in 2015 that allowed telecom companies to block robocalls at the request of customers, but carriers like AT&T insisted they still didn’t have the power to block them.

Granting the carriers the power to block such calls also may encourage them to charge for the service, as there is no rule preventing them from doing so.

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel warned against exactly that when the rules were passed earlier this year, stating, “While the agency offers carriers the ability to limit calls from what are likely to be fraudulent actors, it fails to prevent them from charging consumers for this service...the FCC takes action to ostensibly reduce robocalls but then makes sure you can pay for the privilege. If you ask me, that’s ridiculous.”