Americans continue to be bombarded with robocalls — and from all indications, the problem is getting worse.
About 30.5 billion robocalls were made last year, up 19 percent from the previous record of 29.3 billion in 2016, according to a new report on this epidemic by YouMail, a service that stops unwanted calls. Put another way, that’s more than 100 robocalls for every adult in the U.S. last year.
A majority of these robocalls (50-60 percent) were legal, such as legitimate debt collection robocalls, political and charity robocalls, as well as flight delays and prescription refill reminders. But billions were not.
“What's scary is that about 30 to 40 percent of the robocalls are scams,” Alex Quilici, YouMail’s CEO, told NBC News. “That's a tremendous amount of scam calls hitting the U.S. — over 10 billion in the past year."
Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, has been fighting illegal robocalls for more than four years. According to his database, about 45 percent of all calls made on any given day are robocalls.
“While some of these calls, like political ones, are legal, they are still super annoying. And there’s no way to stop those, even if you are on the Do Not Call List,” Foss said.
"About 45 percent of all calls made on any given day are robocalls."
Robcalls remain the top consumer complaint at both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.
“Robocalls continue to be a significant problem. People are still frustrated by these unwanted calls and are letting us know how frustrated they are,” said Janice Kopec, program coordinator for the FTC’s Do Not Call program.
The FTC received 4.5 million robocall complaints in 2017, up from 3.4 million in 2016. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, since most people bothered by robocalls never file a complaint.
Solving the robocall problem is the FCC’s top consumer protection priority, commission spokesman Will Wiquist told NBC News in an email.
“While unfortunately there is no silver bullet for solving it, we’re working hard to tackle this problem through a number of public policy initiatives and enforcement actions,” he wrote. “We recently passed new rules to allow phone companies to block calls that are likely to be illegal robocalls, and we’re looking at ways to authenticate caller ID information so consumers know who is really calling and blocking services can stop scammers.”
Even as complaints soar, the banking and debt collection industries have asked the FCC to change the rules to allow them to avoid any penalties if illegal robocalls or robotexts are sent accidentally. Current regulations, they claim, allow too many “frivolous lawsuits.”
“Rather than petition the FCC for exemptions that weaken robocall protections, companies should focus on following the rules,” said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
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Why do scammers use robocalls?
Scammers use robocalls because they’re a cheap way to target their victims — and they work. People often respond to the high-pressure pitch to buy something or to provide personal information.
So much personal information has been breached and is now available to phone bandits that they often have the person’s full name and address, account information, and possibly Social Security number when they call. This makes the con artist seem legit.
By “spoofing” the phone number, they can make caller ID show any number they want, such as the phone number for the IRS or Medicare. That’s why so many robocalls display the 202 area code (Washington, D.C.)
Caller ID can also be spoofed to show a local phone number to trick you into thinking a neighbor or local business is calling.
This “neighbor scam” surged 750 percent in 2017 and was named the “scam tactic of the year,” in the new Robocall Radar report from Hiya, a call screening and blocking service for mobile devices. Hiya estimates that one-third of its users flagging a spam call are now reporting the neighbor scam.
Critics, from consumer advocates to members of Congress, have blamed the nation’s phone companies — particularly landline — for not doing enough to help their customers block robocalls.
For years, the carriers claimed they were prohibited by law from blocking any calls. Thankfully, third-party companies stepped in with apps and services to deal with the flood of unwanted calls. In 2015, the FCC told the carriers they can legally block robocalls, if a customer wants such a service.
The FCC took another important step in November: It gave voice providers specific authority to block robocalls from spoofed numbers, including unassigned phone numbers and invalid numbers that should not be placing calls.
Fighting robocalls is now a priority for the industry and work is underway to help customers who want this protection, said Kevin Rupy, a vice president at US Telecom, a trade group that represents broadband and traditional landline phone companies.
“The tools are out there and companies are looking to deploy them,” Rupy told NBC News. “Things are happening at the network level and I expect to see more coming.”
Even so, he said, tackling the problem for landline phone companies remains “one of the challenging pieces of this,” because it’s based on older technology.
"2018 could be the year when this whole thing is going to start to change.”
Wireless phone companies told NBC News they are dedicated to combating the robocall epidemic, and stopping more than a million illegal robocalls every day across America.
“Unwanted robocalls are a nuisance, and the wireless industry continues to tackle the problem by giving consumers the tools they need to control the calls they receive,” said Krista Witanowski, assistant vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA, the trade group that represents wireless carriers.
Nomorobo’s Foss, who has criticized the phone companies for dragging their feet, is optimistic that we will see progress this year.
“I think you're going to see a lot of carriers start integrating robo-blocking technology into their products. I really think 2018 is the year when this whole thing is going to start to change,” he said.
How you can protect yourself
Robocalls are not going away. No matter how good the technology gets, scammers will always find a way to beat the system. That means you need to protect yourself.
- Don’t answer calls with an unfamiliar phone number. Let it go to voicemail and call back if it’s legit.
- Don’t trust caller ID. While it’s a good way to screen calls, you cannot rely on it to guarantee the validity of the phone number displayed.
- Don’t follow the instructions to press 1 or 2 to get removed from their call list. That doesn’t work. It simply tells them that they’ve reached a working phone number and you’re likely to get more spam calls.
- Never call back and don’t engage with them. Telephone swindlers do this for a living. They know how to get you to give them your personal information. Once you do that, you can’t take it back.
If you get illegal robocalls, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. To date, the FTC has brought more than a hundred lawsuits against over 600 companies and individuals responsible for billions of illegal robocalls and other Do Not Call violations.
CTIA’s tip sheet on How to Stop Robocalls includes a list of apps available for the major smartphone operating systems.
Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.