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What We Can Do about Robocalls

By Jessica Bibbo | 02/17/2020

An older adult frustrated by robocalls

As defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), robocalls are calls made by an automatic dialer and use a pre-recorded message. Not all robocalls are illegal, but the majority are, and many of those illegal calls are scams. Examples of legal robocalls are calls that are informational (such as those reminding us about a scheduled appointment, or notifying us if a flight we are booked on is cancelled or delayed), debt collection calls, calls from political candidates and calls from non-profits with whom we already have a relationship, such as a charity we donated to in the past.   

The term robocall has been around since the 1990s, but in the last few years, they’ve become an ever-present part of our lives. According to the YouMail Robocall Index, in 2018, 47.8 billion robocalls were placed in the US, and just in the first half of 2019, 34 billion calls were made. You’re not imagining that it’s gotten worse – it has.

Not only are more calls being made, but technology is making it easier for them to look like legitimate phone calls. A recent example of this is ‘spoofing,’ which happens when a scammer uses an automatic dialer to display a specific number on our caller ID. Scammers know that people are much more likely to pick up a local number, even when it isn’t familiar, than they are when it’s from an unknown area code. 

Scammers intentionally target their scams toward older adults. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people ages 60 and older are more likely to report robocalls than younger adults, and are also more susceptible to lose money over the phone than younger adults. The impact of these unsolicited calls on older adults is serious, and the issue has been taken up by the United States Senate Special Commission on Aging.   

If a loved one has been receiving robocalls or calls from numbers they do not recognize, here are five things we can encourage a loved one to do:

1. Do not answer. The first line of defense against robocalls is not to answer the phone when we don’t know the number. If a loved one does pick up the phone and it’s a robocall, they should be encouraged to hang up as soon as possible. 

2. If a loved one answers and the recording prompts them to press a number to be taken off of their list or talk to a person, they should not follow these instructions, but simply hang up. Pressing a number or otherwise engaging lets the robocaller know a person is on the line and will only increase the chances of receiving more robocalls. 

3. If the recording states it is a call on behalf of an agency or institution that a loved one is familiar with, such as Social Security, the IRS or a bank, a loved one should immediately hang up. We can verify if there is an actual problem by then calling back the agency or institution on a phone number we are familiar with, or their officially listed number.

4. Robocalls from debt collection agencies are legal. Unfortunately, this is also exploited by scammers. If a loved one receives a call or voicemail saying they owe money due to a loan or purchase – they should not call back the number. Instead, they should call the agency with whom they have a loan to be sure payments are up to date. A loved one’s bank records can be used to verify whether a purchase was made with a particular company. This FTC website provides information on how to obtain a free credit report. If we or a loved one are unsure about what loans we have, the best thing to do is get a free copy of our credit report to check that information. 

5. Do not call back the unfamiliar number. Never call back the number if the phone only rings once or they do not leave a voicemail. If they do leave a voicemail, a loved one should verify the number before calling back.   

The FTC and FCC have more information about what to do if a loved one receives a robocall. Both organizations ask that we or a loved one report the robocalls in order for the agency to track and prosecute those who are making illegal robocalls. We can report to the FCC here and report to the FTC here. Unfortunately, reporting will not immediately decrease the number of calls a loved one receives, but it can have a positive impact on prosecuting those who are behind robocalls. 

Placing a barrier between a loved one and the auto-dialers is the best way to minimize the robocalls they receive. We can locate the call blocking service available from a loved one’s phone carrier by clicking on the “Call Blocking Resources” tab on the FCC website.  Resources are provided for both wireless and landline phones. Unfortunately, adding a loved one’s phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry will not limit the amount of robocalls they receive, as only legal telemarketers use this registry. 

Posting information next to or with a loved one’s primary phone (such as the tips above or this tip sheet published by the FCC) may help them remember what to do when they receive a robocall. This can be especially helpful for loved ones with any level of memory or cognitive impairments. 

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