Getting messages that your car warranty is expiring? Or that your Social Security number has been compromised and you're about to be arrested by the IRS? If so, you likely heard or answered one of the nearly 4 billion robocalls—automated phone calls with a recording at the other end—made in 2020.
Are Robocalls Legal?
Robocallers can get your phone number from a variety of places, such as a public phone listing or a lead generation company that sells personal information. But companies selling products or services should only be getting your phone number—and explicit consent for them to call you—from you. Otherwise, the caller is likely breaking the law. Similarly, scammers may use robocalls for illicit purposes, such as getting you to give them personal information they can use to open accounts in your name or sell to other parties.
Some automated-dialing calls are legally permissible, however, such as school closing notifications, political calls, debt collection attempts and messages from your health care provider.
Despite the fact that many phone scams are illegal, robocalls aren't likely to go away anytime soon. According to RoboKiller's 2021 Mid-Year Phone Scam Report, the number of robocalls in the U.S. will likely top 70 billion by the end of the year. After being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, organized scammers have enjoyed significant growth this year, resulting in a 30% increase in spam calls.
Falling for a robocall scam can be costly. Consumers lose nearly $1,200 on average when they fall for a phone scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Key ways to avoid robocall scams start with learning how to spot robocalls and taking action to stop them when possible.
How to Recognize a Robocall Scam
There are several types of robocall scams. Some may insinuate that you have an overdue payment to a government organization like the IRS and ask to confirm your personal information. In "spoofing" scams, a fraudster will call under a number from your own area code to make you more likely to pick up.
There are a few clues that a call may be a spam robocall:
- An unknown number (which may be from your area code)
- A delay on the other end after you say "hello"
- A robotic voice recording generated by a computer
- A threat of arrest, foreclosure or other drastic action
- An urgent financial demand, such as the need to pay back taxes immediately or face legal action
- A request for sensitive information, such as your Social Security number
A legitimate company or government organization won't mind if you say you're hanging up to call back at the official number listed on their website. Scammers may just pressure you more and try to keep you on the phone.
New caller ID authentication standards adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will help reduce spoofing scams. The FCC's STIR/SHAKEN framework requires large voice service providers to implement the caller ID technology to reduce spoofing, but being prepared is still the best defense against all types of phone scams.
How to Stop Robocalls
There are several steps you can take to stop robocalls for yourself or a family member. These include:
- Do Not Call Registry: When you register with the FTC's National Do Not Call Registry, you should stop receiving sales calls. You can voluntarily register your phone number, and companies must check the list before making sales calls. It is free and your registration does not expire. Where the Do Not Call Registry falls short, however, is that scammers don't comply with the registry.
- Call blocking and call labeling: Even if spammers change up their numbers or call you under a false name, you can block numbers as they come in. Your phone service may offer to block suspected robocalls automatically or to label them as spam. You can also download apps that screen calls, such as YouMail or RoboKiller.
- Reporting spam calls: You can file a complaint with the FTC via the Do Not Call Registry if a sales call is coming to you unsolicited or the caller is harassing you. The FTC tracks the numbers of scammers even if they're coming in under fake identification.
- Nothing at all: One of the most powerful moves you can make in the face of robocalls is to do nothing at all. That's because interacting with robocalls such as answering them, pressing a number or speaking to a live person (even to tell them to stop calling you) will likely just lead to more robocalls.
If you or someone you love has been the victim of a robocall scam, it's not too late to take steps to protect your personal information and identity. Consider services such as Experian's IdentityWorksSM, which alerts you when your information appears on the dark web, monitors your credit report for illicit activity and provides identity theft insurance.