Mobile spam calls have been a nuisance for years. I get four to six robotic calls a day, and a quick poll of friends shows I’m not alone. Each waking day brings with it a new burst.
Robocallers have improved their game by masking their spam with authentic-looking local phone numbers. Sometimes their nonsense is funny, like when you get a threatening voice message about your impending arrest for back taxes, but the vast majority of the time it’s an unwelcome distraction. It’s all too easy for these scammers to wield the power of the internet and launch countless calls with ease. And once even a few people fall for a scam, they̵
Estimates of over 50 billion automatic calls in 2019. Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission say they are doing their best to handle the situation and yes, there have been significant crackdowns. But real-world feedback indicates that things are getting worse, not getting better, and it can often feel out of control. The FCC has requested that US carriers adopt technology that will do a lot to combat spam calls by next June. But we’re not there yet.
So, if you’re as sick as I am of pulling a vibrating phone out of your pocket just to see a random, suspicious number, let’s look at your options for fighting back and restoring a sense of peace.
First, I’ll go over some definitions as handlers make important distinctions between these calls, even though they’re all unwelcome and annoying. Here’s how Verizon looks at things:
- Robocallers: Automated and pre-recorded telephone messages
- Spammer: Unwanted callers who could indiscriminately call a large number of recipients; sometimes it includes callers you have given consent to contact you
- Fraudulent calls: An entity that probably pretends to be someone who is not with malicious intent
Option A: Block individual numbers one by one
This is probably a hopeless endeavor if you are aiming to completely eradicate robotic calls, but if there is a particular number that keeps calling, it’s easy enough to block it forever from your iPhone or Android phone.
On iOS, go to the Phone app, then to Recents, tap the blue information icon to the right of the number you want to block and select “Block this caller”.
For Android, the process isn’t much different: go to the Recents section of the Phone app, long press on the annoying number and choose “Block / Report Spam”.
Again, this will require a lot of persistent work on your part to keep spammers away and is no good against blocked or private callers.
Option B: Trust (or pay) your carrier to protect you
Most major mobile operators have taken steps to act as a barrier between you and these annoying callers. They did this through behind-the-scenes network enhancements, including the recent SHAKEN / STIR technology which has begun to allow operators to verify when a call is legitimate and eliminate the many spoofed numbers you’re likely getting from your own area code. In fact, those calls are likely to come from all over the world, but it’s easy for robocallers to impersonate local numbers.
All major US carriers offer some level of spam blocking for free as part of your wireless plan.
AT&T: Call Protect
Available free to all postpaid customers. $ 3.99 / month for the Plus version.
AT&T offers a free service, Call Protect, designed to block fraudulent calls and probable spam risks before they reach you, and you just have to install the software on your phone. Call Protect will not completely interrupt calls from telemarketers, but it will at least display a “nuisance alert” when you receive them. The service also makes it easy to permanently block callers and you can create a personal block list.
There is also a Call Protect Plus service that offers caller ID, reverse number lookup and the ability to block or send voicemail calls by category. These additional features cost $ 3.99 per month, but the main Call Protect service is free as part of your unlimited plan.
Important caveats to know are that Call Protect is only available to postpay customers; prepaid customers cannot use it at all. Also, the “Suspect Spam” feature only works in areas with AT&T HD Voice coverage. Furthermore, the app is unable to block unknown callers entirely.
Download for iPhone | Download for Android
T-Mobile and Sprint: Scam Shield and Scam Block
Available free to all postpaid customers. $ 4 / month for Scam Shield Premium.
T-Mobile recently announced its most comprehensive effort to combat pesky robocalls called Scam Shield. The Scam Shield free download app bundles all of T-Mobile’s various tools – Scam ID, Scam Block and Caller ID – so you can easily configure any level of protection that suits you. By default, suspicious calls are always flagged. Activating Scam Block will prevent many of them from ringing your phone. Additionally, T-Mobile’s Caller ID service will often show information to anyone who calls you, even if they’re not in your contacts.
You can always activate Scam Block without the Scam Shield app. To do this, dial # 662 # from your T-Mobile phone. To disable it, just dial # 632 #.
Scam Shield goes beyond just blocking bad calls – you can also request a secondary “proxy” number that you can use in cases where you don’t want to share your private phone number. And if you find yourself hopelessly flooded, T-Mobile will allow you to change your actual number once a year for free.
For an additional $ 4 per month, you can upgrade to Scam Shield Premium, which allows you to “send entire categories of unwanted automated calls directly to voicemail, such as telemarketers; create” always block “lists; and receive from voicemail to text for instant access to your voicemails. “(Magenta Plus plan customers get Scam Shield Premium for free.)
Verizon Wireless: Call Filter
Available free to all postpaid customers
Verizon’s free call filtering service for deferred pay lines allows customers to “get alerts when a call is likely to be spam, report unsolicited numbers, and automatically block automatic calls based on their preferred risk level. “.
You can block up to five phone numbers that you want to prevent from contacting you for free. However, the blocks expire after 90 days and are not very useful against robocallers with numbers changing every day.
You can get more features, like the ability to create a personal block list, for $ 2.99 per month per line (or $ 7.99 per month if you have three or more lines). A 10-day trial of the paid service is available to help you decide if the additional monthly fee is worth paying.
Option C: Protect yourself with third-party apps
There are a number of services, such as Nomorobo, RoboKiller, and Hiya, designed to prevent robocalls from ringing on your phone. Most of them require a monthly (or annual) subscription. Basically, these services rely on a constantly updated list of robocallers, spammers and scammers and use that database to block harassing calls. (When I say “constantly updated,” I mean they identify thousands of invalid numbers every day.) A call comes in and the service runs it on that huge list of scam numbers. If it finds a match, the incoming call is dropped before it reaches you.
All of them allow you to keep your own personal blacklist of numbers that might bother you and whitelist the ones you want to pass. Some work by downloading a dedicated contact list, separate from regular contacts, to your phone. But both iOS and Android have recently given these services more leeway in taking control of the phone app and preventing jerks from reaching you. On iPhones, you’ll need to enable them in the Settings app and give them Caller ID permissions before they can start working. Apple shows you how to do it step by step right here.
I recommend that you go through each of these services to see which one you like best. All are extensively reviewed by customers and all offer free trials to get you started. One of these will ultimately be what you need to really fight robocalls. It’s just a matter of finding your favorite.
- Nomorobo: 14 days free trial. After that, $ 1.99 / month. Free for landline phones.
Download for iPhone | Download for Android
- RoboKiller: 7 days free trial. Thereafter, $ 3.99 / month or $ 19.99 / year
Download for iPhone | Download for Android
- Hiya: Hiya works with Samsung, AT&T, Spectrum Mobile and others to provide their spam ID services. For individuals, the free iOS app offers spam detection and blocking; the Premium version adds a database of additional names and more frequent updates. The free Android app offers caller ID and spam detection; Premium version adds spam blocker and reverse search. Hiya Premium for Android or i phone: seven day free trial. Thereafter, $ 3.99 / month or $ 24.99 / year.
Download for iPhone | Download for Android
Option D: Trust your mobile operating system to protect you
Many Android phones, including those from Samsung and Google, have built-in options to report suspicious spam calls. If you have a Google Pixel device, the entire screen will turn red when a spammer rings you, which is an easy way to know to ignore the call if you’re across the room from the phone.
iOS 13 has its own app called Silence Unknown Callers, which blocks all callers who aren’t on your contact list, haven’t been in contact, or haven’t sent text messages. Instead, those calls will go directly to the voicemail. You can enable it by selecting Settings> Phone> Mute unknown callers.
Nuclear option: Use Do Not Disturb to only allow calls from your contacts
On both Android and iOS, you can set each operating system’s Do Not Disturb mode to only allow phone calls from those people and businesses in your contact list. This is a pretty drastic solution to the speed dial problem and you are almost certain to miss the calls you wanted to answer. But those calls will go to voicemail, so you can add that number to your contacts for the future. However, I only recommend this option if you are completely fed up and only if you are very good and meticulous in keeping contacts updated.
Why do more and more spam calls seem to come from a local number ?!
It’s super annoying, isn’t it? It’s a trick called neighborhood spoofing, and RoboKiller has a good explanation here. In short, scammers think that a number that matches your area code (and perhaps the first few digits of your number as well) will trick your brain and make you more likely to respond. And it makes their deception seem even more nefarious. What if it’s a family emergency? Maybe it’s your doctor’s office or the pharmacy?
Thankfully, robocall call blocking apps have improved in detecting neighborhood spoofing. RoboKiller claims to have been good at it from the start, and Nomorobo has also made detecting neighborhood spoofing a major goal.
Tip: Don’t forget to add yourself to the Do Not Call register
In theory, telemarketers are supposed to honor the National Do Not Call Registry. You can add yourself to the list by visiting www.donotcall.gov. The FTC says it allows 31 days for legitimate calls to be dropped to telemarketing sales. Once you have signed up, your presence in the Do Not Call register never expires or never expires, contrary to some recent entries. There is no reason to renew or add your number back to the list.
It only covers the Do Not Call register sales calls. Charities, political groups, debt collectors and surveys can still call you once you register. The same goes for companies you may have recently done business with. (You may be able to interrupt this specific type by telling them verbally to stop calling you.) Unfortunately, scammers / robocallers pay no attention to the DNC log and completely ignore it. These robots do not answer to anyone, so you better go back to one of the solutions at the beginning of this article.
Tip: Never let robots know you are a real human
As tempting as it can be to swear up and down at a robocaller or scammer, your best course of action is to leave them unsure whether they are connected to a real person. Say nothing. Don’t press any buttons, even if the robotic voice says this will prevent further calls. Do not place any faith or trust in the robot’s voice. Either let it go to voicemail or hang up immediately if you answered by mistake.
Tip: Complaints with the FTC
When all else fails and you are consumed with despair and anger over endless interruptions, you can always report callers to the FTC. They won’t pursue every single complaint, but it’s certainly important to keep the board aware of the extent of this problem. And as I said before, sometimes the FTC actually takes out some of these scammers.
Even with all these tools in place, it is unlikely that you will avoid any robocall or spammer. But it should help alleviate the avalanche you’re probably experiencing right now. And hopefully, when all operators have call verification up and running, you’ll be able to start trusting your caller ID again and actually answer calls more of the time. But at least in 2020, it’s still wishful thinking.
Update September 10, 2020, 10am ET: This article was originally published on March 6, 2018 and has been heavily updated.