How to stop robocalls

I got a dozen robocalls yesterday. That was a dozen too many. Here's how you can try to stop spam phone calls.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

YouMail, an anti-spam call company claims that in 2020 robocalls actually declined by 22% from 2019. I don't believe it. Mind you, even with the drop, the company claims there were still an estimated 45.9 billion robocalls. That's an insane number of calls, and I swear many of them went right to my number. 

Lots of you just ignore phone calls from numbers you don't know. As a journalist, I don't have that luxury. I get calls sometimes that I must take from numbers I've never seen before. There are times you'll have to do that as well. If you're trying to get a Covid-19 shot, waiting to hear about a job, or if you need to talk to someone about a new house, you have to pick up the phone too. 

If you're like me, nine out of ten times though that call will be an automated message about changing cable companies, renewing your car warranty, or some other junk. Looking ahead, I have both good news and bad news.

First, the good news. In late 2019, President Trump signed TRACED, the first federal anti-robocall law. It says something about how annoying spam calls are that this was one of the few bills to be passed through Congress with strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. 

At the same time, the paired anti-spam technologies of Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) and the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) are being widely adopted. This is a kind of C aller-ID on steroids. SHAKEN/STIR is a protocol for authenticating phone calls with the help of cryptographic certificates so that when someone calls you, you can be sure that the name showing up on Caller ID really is the person calling. It also lets your phone company know, in theory, who's responsible for a particular robocall. This service will work with both landline and cellular networks. 

The bad news is that as the coronavirus pandemic wave slowly rolls away, call centers are coming back online. Wait, "My Windows PC has a virus on it? You really don't know who you're calling, do you!? CLICK." Yeah, you can expect more of that kind of call. 

The other bad news is that SHAKEN/STIR is still being rolled out. Even when it is completely deployed, though it won't be a tech silver bullet that will put robocalls into the grave.

So, what can you do? Let's go over some useful tools.

Smartphone specific robocall blockers 

First, you can just block all unknown callers. With these methods, though, if someone calls that you don't already have in your contact list, you won't hear them call. That can be a problem if you're expecting an urgent, important call. Most phones come with this functionality built in. You just have to turn it on. 

Android phones: Block Calls From Unidentified Callers, tap the phone icon. This is usually on your home screen's bottom. Once there, at the top right corner of the screen, tap the three dots > Settings > Blocked Numbers. Next, enable Block calls from unidentified callers by pushing the toggle switch to the right. The caller still leaves a voicemail and the number will still be listed on your recent calls display. 

iPhones (iOS 13 and later): Silence Unknown Callers. Go to Settings > Phone, then scroll down, tap Silence Unknown Callers, and turn it on. Your phone won't ring and the calls go straight to voicemail while still appearing on your recent calls list.

A related, but different technology, Call Screen, is available on Google Pixel smartphones starting with the Pixel 2. With Call Screen, your phone still rings but when you get a suspicious call, you tap "screen call" on the display. Google Assistant then answers the call and asks for the caller to tell you who they are and why they're calling. Google then makes a real-time transcript of the call. You can then answer it, ignore it, or report it as spam. If you report it as spam that number will be blacklisted on your phone so it can't call you again. 

Carrier-specific robocall blockers

AT&T Call Protect

With AT&T Call Protect, any call that looks OK will show a "V," for verified, on your caller ID. Potentially dangerous calls will be blocked and given a busy signal. Presumed spam calls will display "Suspected Spam" on your Caller ID. They'll also show a category like Political, Nonprofit, Telemarketer, Survey, or Robocaller. This service is available via both an Android and an iPhone app

T-Mobile Scam ID and Scam Block

These related services can work together. The first, Scam ID marks possible robocalls and suspicious calls. Scam Block blocks such calls before they can ring. There's no app for them, you simply turn them on for free with the following call codes: 

Turn on Scam ID: Press #ONI# (#664#), and then the call button.
Turn On Scam Block: Press #ONB# (#662#), and then the call button.

Verizon Call Filter

Verizon customers are automatically enrolled in the free version of Call Filter. This comes pre-installed as an app on most Verizon phones. In theory, it detects spam and blocks high-risk calls. A more feature-full version, Call Filter Plus, costs $2.99 per month per line for up to two lines and $7.99 per month for three or more lines. The Plus version includes Caller ID and automatically blocks spam calls based on your preferred level of risk so unwanted callers go straight to voicemail.

Third-party Robocall killers

There are also numerous other apps, which try to protect you. These all work in similar ways. Each service keeps a database of known spammers and uses algorithms to suss out suspicious numbers.  When a call comes in, it checks the caller to see if they're a bad actor or they look like they might be one. If the caller doesn't look kosher, they block the call. 

Before even subscribing to any of these services, you should know that none of these are perfect. In my experience, they'll spot a hostile caller about two times in three. Most of these services offer at least a free week. I strongly suggest you try before you buy. 

Nomorobo is one of the oldest call-blocking programs. When a call comes in you can let it be forwarded to voicemail or block it as spam. Nomorobo can also deal with spam text messages. Unlike most robocall killers, you can also use Nomorobo with VoIP landlines. If you're still on copper, sorry, you can't use it. Nomorobo is free on landlines and $1.99 a month per device on smartphones.

Hiya Caller ID and Block's special sauce is that it detects spoofed calls, which use a similar number to your own number. This happens to me all the time. I get calls from "people" with the same area code and prefix. The prefix is the three numbers between your area code and the last four numbers, which make up your line number. Hiya spots these in case I don't. 

You may already be using Hiya and not know it. The company's software powers robocall protection for AT&T, Samsung, and T-Mobile. 

Hiya's basic app won't cost you a cent. The premium edition's spam database is larger and is updated more often. It costs $3.99 a month or $24.99 a year. It's available on both iPhones and Android.

The most amusing robocall killer is RoboKiller. Besides blocking spammers, it gives them sass back via its Answer Bots, which can waste their time with nonsense conversations. You can either use one of their selections or come up with one of your own. Robocall revenge can be sweet. RoboKiller costs $4.99 a month or you can save money with an annual subscription for $24.99. 

You can try YouMail for free. The YouMail Free Plan, previously known as YouMail Essential, gives you a voice mailbox capacity of 100 messages. It also a Plus Plan that is only $5.99 a month, billed annually, which can retain up to a 1,000 messages. In all cases YouMail uses your voicemail data to identify robocalls messages. It also uses that information with Big Data techniques to crowdsource the identity of new spam callers and block them from other YouMail users. It even has a neat trick where it tries to fool known baddies into taking you off their lists by playing a dead line's beep-beep-beep sound at them. 

If you like it, you can upgrade it to a paid account. Since YouMail is both a robocall blocker and a business phone system, the price reflects that. It starts at $14.99 a month, paid annually, for up to three lines. There are other plans for bigger businesses.

I wish I could say that any of these would kill spam calls once and for all. I can't. Even when you combine them, you're still going to get robocalls. The problem is it's like playing whack-a-mole. As soon as one spam service is shut down, another one pops up. Someday SHAKEN/STIR and enough FCC enforcement activity will kill them off, but that day isn't here yet.

Still, with the right mix of services, you can preserve some peace from your phone today. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing.

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