What Is a Robocall?

Quick Answer

Robocalls are prerecorded messages dialed by an automated system. Some robocalls are legal, but others are illegal if they are unsolicited and trying to sell you something.

An elderly woman sitting down on her couch uses her laptop while talking on the phone.

If you simply hang up when you hear an automated message saying "We've been trying to reach you," you've probably gotten used to receiving robocalls.

A robocall is a phone call that delivers a prerecorded message to the recipient. Robocalls are often used by scammers to hook unsuspecting victims, and they may not always be legal. Over 50 billion robocalls were placed in 2021, according to robocall blocking service YouMail, signaling how widespread this issue has become.

Here's what you need to know about robocalls to protect yourself from scams and prevent your phone from ringing off the hook.

What Are Robocalls?

A robocall is a recorded message that is transmitted automatically to many telephone numbers by an automatic dialing device. There is little human involvement in the process of making the call. They are used to reach many people at once with a message, which makes them easily exploitable by vishing scammers—scammers using the phone or voicemail—to contact many prospective victims at once.

Are Robocalls Illegal?

Prerecorded messages delivered by phone calls are not inherently illegal. For example, you may get such a message from your child's school announcing a closure, a political ad during election season or your power company notifying you of a planned outage.

But unsolicited robocalls that are trying to sell you something are illegal. Companies must get express, written permission from you to be able to market over the phone. If they haven't, the call is illegal.

How to Identify a Robocall Scam

Unfortunately, you can't always rely on caller ID to tell if a phone call is legitimate due to a phenomenon known as call spoofing. With call spoofing, scammers make their call show up as an official, familiar or local number. Spoofers may even make it look like your own number is calling you. Instead, get familiar with recognizing a robocall by spotting:

  • A clearly recorded message. As discussed above, any prerecorded message trying to sell you something is likely a scam.
  • Silence at the beginning of the call. The calling system is likely waiting for you to answer before clicking on.
  • A voice that seems like a real person but whose timing is off. Some robocalls are sophisticated enough to sound like a real conversation by creating a script based on expected answers, but if you stay silent you'll hear them carrying on without you.
  • Calls that are about products you don't own. If a call is about an extended warranty on your car but you don't have a warranty, you can be confident it is a scam.
  • Messages that seem urgent. Some robocalls employ urgency to make you more willing to engage. For instance, they may say your Social Security number has been compromised or you have a warrant out for your arrest.

How Do I Stop Robocalls?

It may not be possible to stop all robocalls, but you can take some steps to reduce the number you receive. Some of the best ways to stop robocalls take just a few minutes to implement:

  1. Screen your calls. The simplest way to stop scam robocalls is to stop engaging with them. That's because each time you answer or press a number to speak to an operator, scammers can see that your phone number leads to engagement with a real person. They will then likely target you more frequently afterward, increasing the number of calls you get.
  2. Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry. The Do Not Call list is a federal registry that can help you get off the list for calls from telemarketers. Unfortunately, criminal scammers are not dissuaded by the Do Not Call list so enrolling is unlikely to stop them.
  3. Report the number. You can also report robocalls to the Federal Trade Commission on the Do Not Call Registry website. It is helpful to provide any numbers associated with the call, including call back numbers, and the time and date of calls.
  4. Block robocalls. Scammers call from many different numbers, so blocking one on your phone won't stop all future calls, but it can help. You can also use call blocking apps, services or landline devices to help eliminate further scam calls.

What to Do if You Get a Robocall

Try to screen unknown numbers as often as possible. Lack of engagement with cold calls can make you look like a poor target and reduce how often you are contacted by scammers. If you must answer an unknown number that turns out to be a scammer, try these four steps if you get a robocall:

  1. Just hang up. The best thing you can do is to just hang up when you realize the robocall is a scam.
  2. Don't press any buttons. By pressing buttons that engage with the call, you open yourself up to more scam calls by showing potential interest. You may also get to a real person who could try more tactics to get personal information out of you.
  3. Don't say "Yes." Some scammers are recording your responses to attempt to authorize financial transactions with your recorded assent. They may prompt you with questions such as "Can you hear me?" hoping that you'll answer "Yes," giving them crucial voice clips that they could use to manipulate your accounts and transactions.
  4. Don't provide any personal information. If the scam call leads you to press a button to talk to a real person, don't reveal any personal information like your name, address, Social Security number or email.

Protect Yourself—and Your Finances—From Robocalls

Robocalls are a useful tool to get the message out to many people quickly, but they are often abused by scammers targeting potential victims. Screen calls from unknown numbers as often as possible to avoid engaging with possible scam calls and increasing their frequency in contacting you.

As an added layer of protection, especially if you suspect you've been the victim of a robocalling scam, keep a close eye on your credit report by signing up for credit monitoring for free from Experian. Get alerted when something major changes on your credit report so you can take steps to correct any issues that crop up.