Almost every day — often several times a day — smartphones across the land will ring, buzz, and vibrate with unwanted phone calls that threaten to make owning these devices, designed for convenience and innovation, a major annoyance. Just like spam email in years past, robocall scams have become the bane of smartphone existence. These days, robocalls account for some 50% of all phone calls.
Robocalls are unsolicited communications comprised of pre-recorded messages from a variety of sources — both national and international. From telemarketers to corrupt scams, these computerized calls connect with your smartphone at all hours. For a vast portion of the 5.3 billion robocalls made in August 2019 alone — nearly 22 spam calls for every person — there exists no redeeming social value.
From bogus calls from the IRS threatening to come after you, to marketers hawking luxurious vacations at fancy resorts, to get rich quick schemes, to calls in Chinese scamming you with God knows what, these calls will attempt to sell you things you don’t want or need, seek to extract information about you that may be used in identity theft, or frighten you out of your wits. These calls, which trade in deceptive caller IDs and spoofing to falsify area code information, are not only disruptive, they are a dangerous waste of time. Robocalls can also come across as actual phone numbers that belong to real people who have no clue that their phone number is being used for this corrupt enterprise.
The FCC takes action
You know it’s out of control when the feds get into the act. While the authorities allow certain types of robocalls — such as notifications of airline flight cancellation, appointment reminders, or local public service messages — the government forbids businesses to call people to promote the sale of products and services.
On June 6, 2019, the FCC unanimously passed a new rule allowing carriers to automatically block non-pre-approved illegal and unwanted calls before they hit your handset. Carriers were already allowed to block suspicious calls — but only if subscribers opted in. Now, carriers can block calls without prior permission. That sounds great except that there’s no guarantee that it won’t cost you. Not only is this service not required to be free, automated calls from legitimate sources like your doctor’s office could also get blocked. Credit card, banking, and healthcare companies are working to ensure that their own permitted auto-generated calls can still get through.
Here are some tips on how to avoid robocalls on your iPhone.
If you use your iPhone less for calling and more for its other smart features, and you don’t have kids, family members, or close friends that habitually call you, it’s easy to simply turn the ringer off and ignore vibrations until the caller leaves a message — if they leave a message. If you see an unfamiliar, unidentified number listed in your Missed Calls, and the caller has not left a message, just delete the call straightaway. Make sure your family and friends know to always leave a message if you do not pick up. Answering a robocall may put your number in line for more interference because it lets the scammers know you will engage with them. That makes it more likely for your number to be passed onto a human caller who may try to extract information from you or trick you into parting with your hard-earned cash.
Silence unknown callers (iOS 13 only)
In its continuing effort to enhance security, Apple added a new feature to iOS 13 called Silence Unknown Callers. This new setting is designed to protect against spam callers and calls from people you don’t know. It’s a simple toggle on or off.
- Under the Settings tab, tap Phone.
- Toggle to enable the Silence Unknown Callers control.
When the setting is on, the new iOS (which is still in beta) uses Siri intelligence, with its deep learning algorithms, to allow calls from numbers found in your Contacts, Mail, and Messages apps. All other calls automatically go to voicemail. Not only does this feature support the FCC’s new STIR (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited) and SHAKEN (Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) standards, but a checkmark is displayed next to calls in the Recents list when those phone numbers are verified by the carrier. Verified numbers mean the call is not spoofed.
Even here, you need to take care not to miss important calls from people not listed in your contacts. Always check your voicemail for calls to ensure you don’t miss a needed communication.
Use special ringtones
You can use your iPhone to associate certain rings with specific phone numbers so you know exactly when friends and family are trying to reach you. You can even have a unique ringtone for each person. Here’s how to do it.
- Launch the Phone app and tap Contacts.
- Open that person’s contact information and tap Edit.
- Tap Ringtone for a list of built-in ringtones or your own custom made ringtones.
- Tap the ringtone you want to assign to that person to place a checkmark next to it.
- Tap Done to return to the contact’s edit screen.
- The name of the ringtone is now displayed next to the contact and that is what you hear whenever that person tries to call you.
Block individual phone numbers
It’s easy to block individual numbers on your iPhone. The problem is it may not solve the robocall problem. Scammers are on to the block feature and get around it by using different numbers every time they phone you. It can’t hurt to block a number, but long-term help from that action is likely elusive. Here’s how to do it.
- Launch the Phone app.
- Go to your Recents tab, then tap the information icon next to the number you want to block.
- On the upcoming sheet, tap Block this Caller to put the number on your block list.
Join the National Do Not Call registry
While this may not completely filter out all robocalls, there’s no harm in entering your information into the registry because that makes it illegal for any legit telemarketing outfit to contact you via your phone. Just go to the donotcall.gov website and enter the mobile phone number you want to add to the list. Or call 1-888-382-1222 from any phone you want on the list. Your number stays on the list until you specifically request removal or change phone numbers. The Do Not Call list takes you off business call lists, but it can take up to a month to go into effect. Political organizations, charities, and pollsters can still call you. Places you’ve done business with over the last 18 months can also legally call you.
You can also file a complaint about a robocall with the FCC by reporting the time, date, phone number, and a description of the message.
Use your carrier’s resources
Major carriers can already identify, filter, and prevent robocalls from reaching you. In response to the FCC’s new rule, 12 large U.S. phone carriers, including the Big Four, have pledged to implement the new technology called STIR (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited)/SHAKEN (Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), designed to identify robocaller spoofing techniques that make phone numbers appear local. As part of the pledge, taken in partnership with 51 U.S. attorneys general, the carriers will also offer free anti-robocall tools to users. For now, major carriers offer basic free services and premium services for a monthly fee.
AT&T: Subscribers can use a free iOS app called AT&T Call Protect. It has automatic fraud blocking and suspected spam warnings and you can manually block unwanted calls by enabling it in your account settings. A premium version is $4 per month.
Verizon: Verizon offers a free call-blocking service and has identified 300 million spam and scam phone numbers that it will block through its spam alert and call-blocking tools. A premium version is $3 per month.
T-Mobile: T-Mobile provides network-level features to combat robocallers and spam calls. Scam ID, an automatic system, identifies spam numbers when your phone rings. Scam Block lets you block those numbers by dialing #662# on your handset (or turn it off by dialing #632#). These non-app features work automatically on the network in the background. T-Mobile also offers a Name ID service for $4 per month, which identifies and provides caller information like the name, location, and type of organization.
Sprint: Sprint customers can use the free My Sprint or sign up for its Premium Caller ID service to protect themselves from robocalls and caller ID spoofing. This service is $3 a month, and it provides a threat level indicator to give customers an idea of how suspicious a call is. It doesn’t automatically block spam calls, but based on the threat level, you can choose to answer a call, block a number, or report it to prevent future calls.
Use a robocall blocking app
There are a number of reputable robocall-blocking apps on the App Store. Most offer a free plus a more extensive paid version. Make sure you know what you’re getting into with third-party apps. Earlier this year, a number of apps were discovered to have gathered and monetized your information while customers trusted them with blocking spam calls. Here are just a few of the most popular ones.
RoboKiller meets the call scam challenge with predictive call-blocking technology and around-the-clock protection to control who can and can’t call you. The app adds spammers to your block list automatically without your phone ringing. You can reverse the process temporarily if you’re expecting a call from an unknown number. Choose the phone numbers you wish to block, and allow the ones you want to go through. View all missed and blocked calls to see who’s trying to reach you. You can also give spammers some pushback with Answer Bots.
Truecaller identifies and blocks spam calls and works with a community-based spam list from over 250 million users. It automatically identifies spam, fraud, and robocalls before you pick up.
This app offers protection from over 1.5 million robocallers, telemarketers, and phone scammers with over 1,500 new robocallers identified every day. Nomorobo is smart enough to distinguish between good robocalls like weather alerts and bad ones, like telemarketers. It does not identify robocalls (which it leaves to you) but it blocks spoofed calls. Its database contains thousands of robocall messages.
Do not disturb
Apple’s Do Not Disturb feature only notifies you about calls from your contacts. All other numbers are delivered silently in the background.
- Launch Settings.
- Tap Do Not Disturb.
- Chose Allow Call From.
- Tap All Contacts.
Whatever strategy or combination of methods you use to combat robocalls, it is bound to promote peace of mind, not to mention peace and quiet. Now that the heavy-duty government and corporate artillery is being aimed at the criminal robocall enterprise, it’s only a matter of time until it ends.
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