UPDATE: This article was originally published in January 2018 with input from Google. In May 2018, Google reached out to ZDNet to tell us they announced new efforts involving direct action against robocall spammers. This article has been updated with that information.
A few days ago, my phone rang with yet another call from "my local Google specialist." I get these every day or so, and sometimes more than once on a given day. Even though I always block the number, the calls keep coming.
In a fit of petulant peevishness, I posted a missive on Twitter complaining about the calls:
Much to my surprise, I got a ton of replies from followers and even other columnists, all sharing their same level of frustration. Clearly, this was a thing. I decided to follow the approach one of my old bosses used to insist on: "Don't just whine about the problem, find a solution." Clearly, he had never met any bloggers. Even so, that aphorism has always appealed to me, so I reached out to Google.
Taking action against scammers
As it turns out, Google is as annoyed by this problem as we are. In nearly all cases, if you get a call purporting to be from a Google representative, the caller is not representing Google. Robocalls, not just claiming to be from Google, but from many other vendors as well, are a serious problem. The FTC gets hundreds of thousands of complaints every month.
In May 2018, Google announced that it's taking legal action against Kydia Inc. d/b/a BeyondMenu, Point Break Media, LLC (and affiliated entities), and Supreme Marketing Group, Inc. d/b/a Small Business Solutions.
The company says, "We hope this sends the message to other scammers out there that we will not hesitate to take legal action against them."
Google has also announced that they've developed "new automated and manual techniques to better identify Google accounts tied to scam efforts." This allows the company to take action in terms of either removing accounts or limiting their functionality.
If you represent a community or an organization, Google may be able to send out a speaker to help your community avoid fraud and scams. There's a form to fill out that will start the ball rolling.
Google will not robocall you (mostly)
To be clear, Google will not robocall you, unless you've requested an automated callback. Here's Google's statement on that:
Unless you specifically requested an automated call, a call from Google will always be from a live person, not a recorded voice.
So, if you get an unsolicited call and a human is not on the other end, no matter what the recording says, it's not from Google. Hang up. Even if the recording says to hit a button to talk to a human, hang up. If there's a human eventually connected, it will not be a Google human. You'll be, at best, talking to a business that doesn't represent Google, and, at worst, chatting with a criminal trying to scam you.
There are times Google may call you, however
According to Google's Safety Center FAQ, humans actually working for Google may indeed call you. Here's how Google describes it:
You may receive a phone call from Google to verify your business or confirm business details for Google Maps or Google My Business. You may also receive a phone call about Google AdWords, Google Play or other Google products.
The problem is, it's going to be difficult to tell if these callers are legitimately from Google or from another party. Clearly, if the call begins with a recording, you can be almost positive it's a fake. But if there's a human at the other end from the beginning of the conversation, there's no easy way to confirm legitimacy.
My advice in this case is simple: don't give out any personal information to someone who dials your digits out of the blue. It is best that you simply not engage, and hang up.
Making it stop
There is no single way to make these calls stop. I've been blocking calls as they come in, but it's kind of a whack-a-mole situation. As soon as you block one number, another is used to call at a different time.
Google now says that if you "claim your business" on Google, there's a substantially-reduced likelihood that you'll be approached by scammers. To do so, follow these steps.
Since numbers reported on Caller ID are no longer tied to specific land line locations and can be easily spoofed, blocking calls will only get you so far. Even so, I have found that the frequency of disturbances has dropped measurably since I started blocking religiously.
Another option is to add your number to the National Do Not Call Registry at donotcall.gov. This is a service of the Federal Trade Commission. Unfortunately, while it may block some calls, my experience is that it is barely effective. I registered my number back in 2006. Despite the fact that the registry still has my number on file, I get a ton of calls. That said, even if a few calls are blocked, it's worth signing up.
The problem is, many of these calls originate from call centers outside the US or are not subject to US law. Other phone spammers are Americans, but they move their operations around enough that they're too difficult to track and block.
That said, if you do get enough information about a caller to file a complaint, the FCC has a mechanism for you to do so. Visit the FCC's complaint center and file a complaint. Just don't expect it to fix anything.
While we're on the subject of not fixing anything, Google, too, has a complaint form you can fill out. This form helps Google gather information about calls, but the company is upfront about setting expectations. They say, "Please note that this form will not directly impact whether you will receive robocalls in the future."
That said, if you want to do something, here's the form you can fill out. Do you feel empowered? Sure, I knew you would.
The bottom line
Here's the bottom line to all of this: scammers will scam. No matter what you try, you're still going to get the occasional annoying call. The only consolation I can offer is that we're all in this together. Don't let it raise your blood pressure or get you so angry that you scare your dog. Just hang up and move on with your day.
And, hey, if you want something to really look forward to, there's this: the 2018 election season is around the corner. It's not illegal for politicians in America to use automated dialing devices to pitch their platforms. See? I'll bet that cheered you right up.