Robocalls on the Rise: How You Can Fight Back
Last updated July 8, 2022
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Your car warranty has expired. You owe taxes. Your Social Security or Medicare account has been suspended. There’s a question about your most recent credit card payment. Your Amazon, Apple, or Microsoft account has been hijacked.
Despite improved technology and stronger regulations, our phones are still inundated by scam robocalls and texts. The volume is astonishing: According to Nomorobo, a robocall blocking service, scammers make nearly 30 percent of all calls placed on U.S. telecommunications networks. RoboKiller, another blocking service, reported that in May 2022 Americans received more than 6.5 billion robocalls—nearly 24 spam calls for every person in the country. It also reported that we received 11.9 billion spam text messages.
Fraudsters make robocalls and send fake texts because they are effective, cheap to set up and run, and allow criminals to solicit millions of consumers worldwide instantly. Internet-based phone technology lets them disguise (“spoof”) their own phone numbers so they seem to come from a trusted source, such as a local area code and exchange, credit card company, the IRS, or police department. RoboKiller estimates that in 2021 Americans lost more than $30 billion to scams that began with robocalls. (Because most fraud victims never report their losses, the actual figure is probably much higher.)
“Most of us think we won’t be a victim of this scam. But, certainly, with billions of dollars being lost like this, it’s happening to a lot of us,” said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
Can’t the Phone Networks Reject Robocalls?
For years, regulators and phone companies have been promising that new technology would kill robocalls. But phones keep ringing.
In 2019, Congress passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, which required telephone companies to implement new technology called “STIR/SHAKEN” by June 2021. (Yes, James Bond fans are involved in the project.)
The STIR/SHAKEN system requires phone companies to flag calls that don’t originate from the numbers displayed on our phones’ caller ID. That’s why your phone now often will warn that you’re getting a call from “Scam Likely” or his brother, “Suspected Scam.”
But the new system doesn’t catch all scam calls. “While STIR/SHAKEN will improve the quality of caller ID information, it does not mean the call itself is legitimate,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cautions on its website. “You need to remain vigilant.”
Many scam robocalls originate from outside the country, which makes them more difficult to identify by STIR/SHAKEN technology. In May, the FCC voted unanimously to adopt new rules to stop illegal robocalls that originate overseas from entering U.S. phone networks. Gateway providers, which are the companies that connect those foreign calls to American phones, will be required to comply with STIR/SHAKEN caller ID authentication protocols, and take additional measures to validate the identity of the foreign telephone providers whose traffic they are routing.
Another limitation: STIR/SHAKEN technology works on mobile phones and internet-based telephone services, not on old-fashioned copper landlines. And it doesn’t address the growing problem of spam texts (more on that later).
While phone companies ignored the growing robocall problem for years, they are now using STIR/SHAKEN technology (as required) to block fraudulent calls that are spoofed and label those that appear suspicious. AT&T told Checkbook that it now blocks or labels about one billion robocalls per month.
Despite improving call screening technology, fighting robocalls continues to be a game of whack-a-mole, as criminals find ways to avoid detection. For example, some are now buying blocks of legitimate phone numbers to circumvent STIR/SHAKEN.
Robotexts Present Even More Problems
Despite the overwhelming number of robocalls being made, robotexts have already overtaken them as the most common way fraudsters target victims. The 2021 Year in Calling report from Truecaller, a spam-blocking company, noted its app alone blocked 38 billion spam calls last year, as well as 182 billion texts.
Scam text messages, like their phishing email cousins, are designed to lull you into clicking on a malicious hyperlink or into providing sensitive information. (With texts, the practice is called “smishing.”)
A common ploy: The message says “Your package delivery is pending. Click this link to confirm your order.” Crooks also often pose as banks and send messages that say they are closing your account, hoping you’ll click on the hyperlink with the message.
Dealing with robotexts presents a different challenge for phone companies and regulators than trying to block calls. So far, they’ve tried to apply a law—the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991—but it was written long before texting existed.
Clearly, new rules are needed to protect consumers from scam texters. In October 2021, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel proposed rules that would require cellular service providers to block illegal text messaging.
“In a world where so many of us rely heavily on texting to stay connected with our friends and family, ensuring the integrity of this communication is vitally important,” Rosenworcel said at the time. “It’s time we take steps to confront this latest wave of fraud and identify how mobile carriers can block these automated messages before they have the opportunity to cause any harm.”
Unfortunately, Rosenworcel’s anti-scam-text proposal, which has overwhelming support from consumer advocates and other fraud-watch groups, has not come up for a vote by the commission.
In the meantime, the problem continues to worsen. Consumer complaints to the FCC about robotexts grew from about 5,700 in 2019 to 14,000 in 2020, 15,300 in 2021, and already 8,500 as of the end of June 2022.
Look for red flags. Does the caller ID show that a call or text is coming from your phone number? That’s a common trick to get you to take the crook’s call or respond to their text. And the Social Security Administration will never call you out of the blue. Should there ever be a problem with your account, they’ll send a letter via the U.S. Postal Service.
Don’t answer. If you don’t recognize a number, let the call go to voicemail. If they leave a message claiming to be with your bank, credit card company, Apple, Amazon, etc., don’t call the number provided; instead, call a number or visit a website for the company that you know is legitimate, such as one on a statement or credit card, to find out what’s really going on.
Don’t click on links. The hyperlinks criminals include in their scam texts often lead to a website they’ve set up to look like a legitimate online portal for a familiar bank or company. Their goal is to get you to share your user account, password, or other personal info. Never click on links sent via text or email; instead, go to the company’s website or call its customer support line.
Don’t share. Never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mother’s maiden names, passwords, or other identifying information in response to unexpected calls, or if you are suspicious.
Don’t pay up. Banks, retailers, and the federal government won’t insist you pay via Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency, or use a peer-to-peer app (such as Venmo or Zelle), or ask you to buy gift cards.
Use available tools. Most phone companies offer apps for your mobile phone or VoIP devices that can help block unwanted calls. The Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have detailed information about robocalls and robotexts. The FCC also has a list of call blocking resources available from phone companies, phone manufacturers, and third-party screening services.
Not sure? Call for help. AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline is a fantastic resource. If you get a call and don’t know what to do, you can call 877-908-3360 for advice. You do not need to be an AARP member to use it.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for NW Newsradio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.