In 2021 alone, phones in the U.S. were pummeled by more than 50 billion robocalls, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking and analysis company. That’s more than 150 calls for every person in the country. In July, that number was 3.8 billion.
The result? Many of us just don’t answer our phones unless we recognize the number.
The damage done can have serious consequences, intended and not. In addition to fraudulent marketing, ignoring unknown numbers could prove dangerous – take the hiker lost on a mountain in Colorado who was reported to have ignored repeated telephone calls from Lake County Search and Rescue because they didn’t recognize the number. Consequently, the hiker didn’t even know anyone was searching. It’s a behavior common to most of us. A 2019 Consumer Reports survey found that 70% of Americans don’t answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number.
Are Robocalls Legal?
In general, unless a company has your written permission, it is against the law to contact you via robocall, especially if the caller is trying to sell something. There are some exceptions. According to the Federal Trade Commission, these types of robocalls are permitted by law:
- Messages that are purely informational as long as the caller isn’t also trying to sell you something.This includes calls about flight cancellations, for example, or reminding you about an appointment or letting you know about a delayed school opening.
- Debt collection calls. A business contacting you to collect a debt can use robocalls to reach you. But robocalls that try to sell you services to lower your debt are illegal and are probably scams.
- Political calls to landline phones, as long as they contain required identifying information.
- Calls from some health care providers, such as from a pharmacy reminding you to refill a prescription.
- Messages directly from charities. But if a charity hires someone to make robocalls on its behalf, unless you are a prior donor or member of the charity, the robocall is illegal. They also must include an automated option to let you stop future calls.
How to Avoid Robocalls
Quilici offered the following advice:
- Get a robocall blocking app on your cell phone. This will filter a lot of the bad guy calls so you don’t have to worry about them.
- Let calls from unknown numbers roll to voicemail.
- Do your homework before calling a number back – generally, if they claim to be a bank, say, go to the bank’s website and call the number there, and do not just call back the number that called you.
- Finally, if you do answer, never give out personal information and hang up if asked for it.
You can also forward suspicious text messages to 7726 (or SPAM). This free text exchange with your wireless provider will report the number, and you will receive a response thanking you for reporting it.
In addition, the FCC offers the following advice:
- Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. If you answer, hang up immediately.
- Be aware: Caller ID showing a local number does not necessarily mean it is a local caller.
- If you answer the phone and you are asked to hit a button to stop getting the calls, hang up. Scammers often use this trick to identify potential targets.
- Do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with “Yes.”
- Never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mother’s maiden name, passwords or other identifying information in response to unexpected calls or if you are at all suspicious.
- If you get an inquiry from someone who says they represent a company or a government agency, hang up and call the phone number on your account statement, in the phone book, or on the company’s or government agency’s website to verify the authenticity of the request. You will usually get a written statement in the mail before you get a phone call from a legitimate source, particularly if the caller is asking for a payment.
- Be wary of pressure for information immediately.
- If you have a voicemail account, be sure to set a password for it. Some voicemail services are preset to allow access if you call in from your own phone number. A hacker could spoof your home phone number and gain access to your voicemail if you do not set a password.
- If you use robocall-blocking technology, tell that company which numbers are producing unwanted calls so they can block those calls for you and others.
- To block telemarketing calls, register your number on the Do Not Call List. Legitimate telemarketers consult the list to avoid calling both landline and wireless phone numbers on the list.