Robocall calls have become epidemic. Nearly 48 billion of them - 146 for every person in America - were placed nationwide in 2018, up 57% from 2017, according to tracking by YouMail, which provides call-blocking and call-management services. The company estimates that 40% of automated calls are fraudulent.
Illegal robocalls include telemarketing spam (automated sales calls from companies you haven't authorized to contact you) and attempts at outright theft. Prerecorded messages dangle goodies like all-expenses-paid travel or demand payment for nonexistent debts to get you to send money or give up sensitive personal data.
Scammers often use caller ID spoofing to mask their true location, making it appear that they're calling from a legitimate or local number to raise the odds that you'll pick up. If you do, the robotic voice on the other end might claim to represent a utility, a name-brand company or a government agency (Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service are popular poses). It might offer you a free cruise, cheap health insurance or a low-interest loan. It might claim you've won a lottery. It might tell you to press a particular key to learn more, or to get off a call list.
Whatever the message, don't engage. Doing so can lead you to a real live scammer, who'll pressure you to make a purchase or pump you for personal information, like a credit card or Social Security number. Even just pressing a key or answering a question alerts scammers that they've hit on a "live" number, and they'll call it again and again.
It's important to note that many robocalls are legal. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows them for some informational or noncommercial purposes, such as polling, political campaigning, and outreach by nonprofit groups (including AARP). Your dentist's office can robocall you with an appointment reminder, or an airline with news about a flight change.
But illegal robocalls make up a fast-growing share of phone traffic, making it all the more important to be on guard for automated scams.
- You receive an automated sales call from a company you have not given consent to contact you.
- A prerecorded message tells you to press "1" or some other key to being taken off a call list.
- The message offers you goods or services for free or at a suspiciously deep discount.
- The message says you owe back taxes or unpaid bills and face legal or financial consequences if you don't pay immediately.
- The message says you've won a big lottery or sweepstakes prize and tells you to press a key or call a number to claim it.
- Do hang up on illegal robocalls.
- Do add all your numbers to the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry. It won't stop fraudulent calls, but it will make them easier to spot because most legitimate telemarketers won't call numbers on the registry.
- Do explore free and low-cost call-blocking options, such as apps and services that screen calls and weed out spam and scams. Ask your phone service provider if it offers any such tools.
- Do verify the caller. If the robocall claims to be from, say, Social Security or your bank, hang up and look up the real number for that entity. Call and ask if they contacted you.
- Do report scam calls to the proper authorities (see More Resources below). Every report helps authorities piece together a fuller picture of what scammers are doing.
- Do review a company's privacy policies before you give it permission to call you. You might be authorizing them to share your contact information with others.
- Don't answer calls from unknown numbers. The FCC recommends letting them go to voicemail.
- Don't press any keys or say anything in response to a prerecorded message. This lets scammers know yours is a working number and will lead to more spam calls.
- Don't follow instructions to "speak to a live operator." This will likely transfer you to a call center for an aggressive sales pitch or a phishing expedition.
- Don't judge a call by caller ID alone. Scammers mask their location by tricking your phone into displaying a legitimate government or corporate number, or one similar to your own (a practice called "neighbor spoofing").