Screen unwanted calls without one-at-a-time blocking

The free Nomorobo service and AT&T's Privacy Manager help reduce the number of nuisance calls that aren't blocked by the Do Not Call registry.

Nomorobo sign-up page
Add your phone number to the free Nomorobo call-screening service to block unwanted calls. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Sometimes it seems I should be answering my phone by asking, "What are you selling?" Even though our home and mobile numbers were added to the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry as soon as we received them, the unsolicited nuisance calls persist.

That's because the government's registry blocks only telemarketers -- and not all of them. While most honest telemarketing firms honor people's wishes not to receive such calls, many ignore the requirement not to contact numbers on the list, as David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times reported last July.

Also, the Do Not Call restrictions don't apply to charities, poll takers, and political groups. In addition, any company with whom you've done business is allowed to call you as long as 18 months after your last purchase, delivery, or payment, as the FTC's Do Not Call FAQ for Business indicates.

Amendments to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act that took effect in October 2013 state that autodialed "robocalls" from telemarketers that deliver a prerecorded message require prior express written consent even if an "established business relationship" exists, as explained on the Klein Moynihan Turco legal site.

Telemarketing firms that have lost business as a result of people adding their phone numbers to the Do Not Call list are turning to nonprofits. The Charity Navigator site provides advice on What to Do When a Charity Calls. Even though unsolicited calls on behalf of nonprofits are allowed, you can request to have your number removed from the charity's database. If your request is ignored, the telemarketing firm can be fined.

As Sid Kirchheimer reports on the AARP site, companies calling on behalf of charities must identify themselves when you ask, and they must honor your request to be removed from the calling company's list of numbers, though not necessarily from the charity's own list. As Kirchheimer points out, charities are not required to remove your number upon request, though most legitimate organizations will do so.

Kirchheimer also explains that opinion survey takers may actually be attempting to collect personal information about you, including the number of credit cards you have and your current balances. Then they may offer you a credit account with a low interest rate as a "prize" for answering their questions.

Regardless of the reason for the call, do not volunteer any personal information to callers. This includes verifying your name when they ask, "May I please speak to Dennis?" If you respond to these callers at all, it should be to politely ask them to remove your number from their database. (In my experience, if you ask them what company they work for, they hang up immediately.)

To prevent receiving political calls, add your number to the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Political Do Not Call Registry. The "grass roots" movement promises to contact political parties, candidates, political action committees, and other organizations that make political robocalls to let them know you do not want to be contacted. You have to register with the site by providing your name, phone number, and email address.

In addition to the free sign-up, the service offers a $5 annual membership and a $25 "lifetime" membership. It's unclear how the free and fee-based services differ, apart from not automatically sending you information about the organization and its activities when you sign up for a paid account. (This strikes me as kind of a spam-as-blackmail approach.) The site also provides a form you can use to complain about unwanted political phone calls you receive.

Screen callers all at once rather than one by one

According to the results of a Harris Poll on call blocking released yesterday, 22 percent of smartphone users block calls on their device. The Consumer Call Blocking study was sponsored by WhitePages.com. The primary reason they blocked calls was to avoid telemarketers, which was cited by 65 percent of the people who block calls. (Avoiding an ex was the goal of 20 percent of call blockers.)

In a post from February 2013, I explained "How to screen unwanted calls on iPhones and Android phones." Last January's "Choose when to block your phone number" described a technique for identifying yourself when calling family and friends but blocking your number when calling anyone else.

Unscrupulous telemarketers and other unwanted callers use various techniques to avoid being blocked. The moment you add one number to your block list, they simply call from another number. What we need is a way to authenticate callers before the phone rings. The free Nomorobo services offers to do just that.

Start by indicating whether you want to block a land line or a mobile number. Then select your carrier from the drop-down list, or enter the company name in the text box. Provide an email address and click Next to find out whether your service provider supports Nomorobo.

Nomorobo select-your-service screen
First, determine whether Nomorobo supports your land-line or wireless carrier. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

If the company doesn't support Nomorobo's call screening, you're prompted to contact its customer service line to request that it add Simultaneous Ringing. If your phone service supports Nomorobo, you're emailed a link to follow to complete the setup process.

After you enter your name and provide a password, you choose the type of line you want to screen (land line or wireless), select your carrier, enter your phone number, and add a description, if you wish.

Nomorobo add-your-phone-number screen
Start the screening process by entering your line type, carrier, and phone number. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Next, you're prompted to enable simultaneous ringing via your phone company's options page. (Since I was screening an AT&T number, I signed into the MyATT Feature Controls page and enabled the Locate Me feature.) Enter Nomorobo's toll-free number and click Add.

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The Nomorobo setup wizard provides instructions for enabling simultaneous ringing on your carrier's options page. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Nomorobo places a test call to the number; you're instructed to wait at least three rings before answering. When you answer, a recording confirms that screening is in place for the number.

Prior to signing up for Nomorobo, our home number was receiving several telemarketing calls each day from companies that claimed to be representing charities. We have received no such calls since we registered the number. That's no indication we'll never hear from a telemarketer again, but the early results are promising to say the least.

Another option for screening calls before they ring is to sign up for a service such as AT&T's Privacy Manager. The service works in conjunction with Caller ID to request that callers showing as anonymous, unavailable, out of area, or private identify themselves to complete the call. The caller is prompted to unblock their number or record their name.

When your phone rings, "Privacy Manager" appears in the Caller ID box. Your four options are to answer the call, reject it, forward it to voice mail or an answering machine, or send a solicitor's rejection that asks the caller to add your number to their do-not-call list. If you choose the second option and simply reject the call, the person hears a message indicating that you're not available and asking them to "try again later."

For frequent callers whose numbers are unidentified, you can provide them with access codes that allow them to bypass the Privacy Manager without having to record their name beforehand.

Other call-screening options

For information on Xfinity's call-screening options, visit the Comcast support site. Call screening is one of the features of Phone.com's integrated-phone-number service, which is available for a 30-day free trial.

Note that Verizon previously offered the Call Intercept service but discontinued it in July 2011, to the displeasure of many customers. Also, many phones and phone add-ons, such as the $150 Ooma Telo, provide call-screening and -blocking options, as does Google Voice.

In addition to call screening, many phone services offer anonymous call rejection, distinctive rings, and other ways to identify and block specific callers. For information specific to your service, enter "call screening" plus the service's name in a Web search engine, or visit the company's support site.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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