Technology

Defeating robocallers isn’t easy, but you can try

Carriers and regulators have an ongoing challenge in blocking robocalls and scams.
Carriers and regulators have an ongoing challenge in blocking robocalls and scams.

Ah, the robocall, the recorded message selling you something — siding, insurance, a candidate for office — that you’re likely not interested in.

Caller ID can help. But not every unknown number is spam. It might simply be your doctor’s office or the car mechanic, numbers you’ve not yet stashed in your contacts. (Tip: Add them all. You might need them one day. And at least next time they call, even if you don’t want to talk with them, you’ll know who’s ringing you.)

In the best-case scenario, a robocall is a mere annoyance. Hear that studio voice-over guy, and you just hang up.

In the worst case, it’s a scam. Some start out asking “can you hear me?” If you say “yes,” that affirmation is recorded and has been used as permission to make charges to your phone or other bills, CBS News reported early this year.

After you get a robocall, both iPhones and Androids let you block them. Look at your list of recent calls and the blocking method’s fairly simple.

The robots, or at least the telemarketers who control them, know this. So they constantly shift the telephone numbers that show up on your screen when the phone buzzes.

AT&T this week touted its work to identify and deflect robocallers, boasting of recently blocking its “billionth unwanted robocall using a new program that detects violators through network data analysis.”

The company said in a news release it looks at 1.5 billion calls a day to sniff out patterns that reveal robocallers.

For instance, the company said, it notices “short-duration calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call list,” a fair indication that the recording has irritated lots of people.

In recent weeks, AT&T said, it’s blocked about 12 million calls per weekday.

The Android phone app, the thing on your smartphone that handles old-fashioned phone calls, helps with blocking. It catalogs a list of suspected robocallers and spam operators. Your phone will still ring, but the screen lights up in red, shows the incoming number and tells you “suspected spam caller.”

The Federal Communications Commission lists various tactics employed by carriers AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Google’s Project Fi and U.S. Telecom and links to their programs. That site does not include a Sprint link.

Sprint sells Premium Caller ID for $3 a month that “identifies callers who are not already in your contacts. …

“Incoming Calls will not only be identified with the Calling party’s name if available, but will also contain text and graphical warnings in order to provide you with the best information available to determine how you want to manage the call.”

Someone who pays for the extra service can also make their number invisible to people to whom they place calls by punching *67 before dialing a number.

In March, T-Mobile introduced a free program that can see “calls come in from known scammers (and) allows you to block all known scammers before they reach you.” For another $4 a month, its Name ID program “lets you choose who you talk to. It shows the name and number of an incoming mobile or landline caller even when they’re not in your address book.”

The FCC says, “Robocalls and telemarketing calls are currently the number one source of consumer complaints” to the agency.

Americans got hit with about 2.4 billion robocalls per month in 2016. “What was once a nuisance has become a plague,” the FCC said in an October report.

“Fraudulent robocallers constantly change their methods to bypass blocking solutions,” the report said. “Our approach to unwanted and illegal robocall blocking needs to be constantly evolving and adapting.”

The agency also says that AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint customers can report spam texts by copying the original message and forwarding it to 7726 (SPAM). There is no charge.

A pending change in FCC rules, The Verge reports, would let the carriers ban robocallers from trying to fool people by hiding the true identity of where a call originates — often by posting a number that clearly can’t exist because it hasn’t been assigned.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

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