I receive a handful of calls every day. Not from my friends or family, but from scammers and telemarketers, notifying me that I've "won tickets to Hawaii" or pretending to be the IRS and threatening me so I'll pay up.
It's why I don't pick up any phone numbers I don't easily recognize, even if the call might be important, because I'm permanently scarred from the sheer amount of spam calls I get.
In January 2023 alone, Americans received 5.51 billion robocalls, which is nearly 20 spam calls for every single person in the US, according to Robokiller, a company that specializes in blocking spam calls and robocalls.
And these calls come in all shapes and sizes. You're likely familiar with the good ol' "scam likely" calls, but there are also more sophisticated attacks that involve spoofing local numbers and those of popular companies, to convince you to give up your personal information and cash. More recently, these attacks have moved over to SMS, where there are phishing text messages that come from your own phone number.
No matter what the calls say, one thing is certain -- they need to stop.
Ove the last couple of years, the Federal Communications Commission aimed to wrangle the robocall problem by requiring major wireless carriers to start using Stir/Shaken technology. Stir/Shaken verifies all incoming and outgoing calls for wireless carriers that are routed through their networks. By verifying each call, carriers can reduce the number of fake or spoofed calls. But it only stops robocalls on one avenue -- it's not the be-all and end-all. You may still get spam calls for free trips or fake notices that your student loan payment is overdue.
You can read more about Stir/Shaken here. As the FCC continues its crusade, keep reading this story for things you can do to help curb the number of times your phone rings throughout the day with calls from potential fraudsters.
How to keep annoying robocalls at a minimum
According to the FCC, there are some easy steps you can take to help reduce robocalls:
- Don't answer calls from blocked or unknown numbers.
- Don't answer calls from numbers you don't recognize.
- Don't assume an incoming call is really from a local number just because it looks like it is.
- Don't respond to any questions that can be answered with a "Yes."
- If someone calls you and claims to be with XYZ company, hang up and call the company yourself. Use the company's website to find an official number.
- If you do answer a call and hear a recording such as, "Hello, can you hear me?" just hang up.
- The same goes for a call where you're asked to press a number before being connected to a representative.
When you answer a call and interact with the voice prompt or by pressing a number, it lets spammers know your number is real. They can then sell your number to another company or begin targeting your number more frequently.
When it first launched, Google's Call Screen feature arguably went against the FCC's advice by answering and interacting with the robocall on your behalf. However, Google added new features to Call Screen for its Pixel phone lineup. The feature can now detect robocalls and spam calls and block them before they reach you. Google Assistant will interact with the caller, and if it determines that the call is legitimate, it will route the call to your phone.
Apple's iPhone has an option to Silence Unknown Callers, which adds the option to route calls from numbers not found in your Contacts, Mail or Messages straight to voicemail. Any legitimate callers can leave a message. But that's the rub: We often receive important calls from numbers we don't store on our phones, like a doctor's office or a repairman, so you could miss important calls this way. But if all else fails and you're desperate to stop robocalls, this is a valid option.
If you find yourself receiving a lot of spam text messages, you can forward the message to the number 7726 (which spells "spam"). It won't stop the number from texting you right away, but it will allow your carrier to look into where it came from and put an end to it.
Check with your wireless carrier
All four major wireless carriers offer some sort of call-blocking feature. All have a free option and a premium tier. But let's be frank, all robocall-blocking services should be free. This shouldn't be a way for carriers to make some money off of us.
- AT&T ActiveArmor is available for iOS and Android. The free version blocks spam and fraud calls and provides nuisance warning labels and a personal block list, and you can block all unknown callers. AT&T ActiveArmor Advanced runs $4 per month per line, with additional benefits of caller ID for unknown numbers, reverse number lookup, identity monitoring and public Wi-Fi protection.
- Verizon's Call Filter app is automatically enabled for Android users on a postpaid plan. The service offers spam detection, a spam filter, a call log for blocked or spam calls, the ability to allow calls from specific numbers (iOS only) and the option to report numbers for free. You can pay $3 per month (or $8 per month for three or more lines of service) for caller ID, spam lookup, a personal block list and a spam risk meter. Call Filter is built into most Android devices out of the box (you've probably been prompted about it if you have an Android phone) but is also available in the App Store for iOS users.
- T-Mobile's Scam Shield is free to all customers and includes multiple features designed to protect you from robocalls and sharing your personal information. Dial #662# from your phone to turn on Scam Block, or download the free Scam Shield app in your phone's respective app store. With Scam Shield enabled, you'll get full caller ID, scam reporting, scam blocking before your phone ever rings and the option to mark numbers as favorites so they still ring your phone.
Use a different wireless carrier? I suggest calling its customer support or visiting its website to see if it offers a similar service.
Use a third-party app to limit the number of robocalls you get
If your provider doesn't offer an app or service to cut back on robocalls, or does but it's too expensive, there are plenty of third-party apps available. You want to find an app that works on your device, offers automatic call blocking and spam alerts for suspicious calls and makes it easy to report a number if a call slips through.
Hiya is a free app I have used on Android and iOS for some time now with success. It's from the same company that powers AT&T's ActiveArmor app, as well as Samsung's built-in call block and spam protection service. Samsung Galaxy owners can enable the built-in service in the Phone app under Settings > Caller ID and Spam Protection. Setup is painless, and it offers an easy way to report a number.
Nomorobo is the service that Verizon uses for its Fios users, but it also has a phone app. The service is free for VoIP users and costs $2 per month for mobile users. Additional services with similar capabilities include YouMail and RoboKiller.
The Firewall app is only available on the iPhone and does a fantastic job of blocking calls. In the event you need to make a call that you'd rather not use your real phone number for, the $4-a-month subscription provides unlimited single-use fake phone numbers.
Another option is to get a free Google Voice phone number that you can use to sign up for things instead of giving out your real number -- and once the robocalls start coming in on that Google Voice number, use the block feature. Just know that blocking calls may end up being a lot of work, as robocallers are constantly spoofing different phone numbers.
None of the above solutions is perfect, but they supplement your carrier's integration of technology now required to check for caller ID spoofing. So right now you have to do some extra work to keep the number of robocalls you receive to a minimum. Between being cautious about calls from unknown numbers and using a service (paid or free), you can reduce the amount of unwanted calls and spam you have to deal with.
In sum, carriers have started using Stir/Shaken technology to verify callers, which so far hasn't significantly cut down on the number of robocalls we all receive. So for those with an iPhone, learn where the setting is to block unknown callers, but remember using it could mean you miss calls from doctors' offices and the like. And for those with a Pixel phone, Google's Call Screen feature will surely help, and may even entertain you.