If your cell phone is incessantly buzzing with calls from numbers you've never seen before, you're not alone. Spam calls from automated robots and, even more worrisome, cyber scammers are on the rise for Americans across the nation. According to a 2017 report to Congress from the Federal Trade Commission, the bureau received 4.5 million complaints on robocalls alone in 2017. That's in addition to the 2.5 million comments on telemarketers. For comparison, the bureau recorded 3 million calls in 2016. Simply muting your phone and ignoring non-contacts just isn't feasible for most; after all, important calls about your home, business, and health come from automated systems all the time. So, how can you tell the difference between a legitimate and scam phone call? And what can you do to protect yourself from falling victim to the same automated messages day in and day out?
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"Anybody who wants to avoid spam phone calls is strongly advised not to share their phone number anywhere unless they absolutely have to," says Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert with ProPrivacy, a service-driven advocacy group for consumers. "Handing over your phone number when signing up for services, buying products, or during marketing questionnaires can lead to your phone number being added to lists that result in cold calls." More often than not, entities collecting this information will sell your data to third-party companies who will contact you in the future. In addition to skipping sweepstakes and other incentive-drive questionnaires, there are a few other ways you can keep your phone number as personal as possible, including getting help from both your carrier and the federal government. We also asked leading experts what you can do to stop the endless stream of calls if your contact info has somehow ended up in the hands of scam artists, telemarketers, and automated robots.
Register Your Number with the National Do Not Call Registry
If you don't currently receive daily spam calls, consider yourself lucky—and sign yourself up immediately on the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry. It's a free resource for any American who's looking to prevent automated phone banks from adding your number to their lists, Walsh says. You can enroll your cell phone or home line in the registry by signing up here, or by simply calling 1-888-382-1222 from the number you wish to protect. The registry won't automatically guarantee you safety from harassment; after all, some scammers and spammers don't fear a threat of legal retribution. Adding your number to the registry also doesn't prevent callers from political campaigns, charities, and debt collectors from contacting you directly.
Sign Up for a Google Voice Number
Sometimes, you just can't avoid sharing a phone number with certain retailers or service providers in order to receive benefits like discounts—but that doesn't mean you have to hand out your actual digits. According to Paul Katzoff, CEO of White Canyon Software, a Utah-based cybersecurity software developer, there are many free and paid mobile applications that can provide you a "shell" number that allows you to screen calls. None are as easy to use as Google Voice, though, which is available for free to anyone who has a Google account, Katzoff says; you can use this number, which looks just the same, with services that you may not trust entirely. "Use this number for sweepstakes and giveaways—when the robodialer calls that number, your phone will list it as coming from your Google [Voice] number and you can choose to ignore it or not," Katzoff says. "I'd also recommend having an area code that is different than the state you're living in. A lot of robo dialers will spoof the area code of your cell phone when they call you, so if you live in Utah and you get a call from Long Beach, California, you can be assured that it isn't a local company trying to call you."
Use Your Phone's Privacy Features
If you notice there's a particular spam number that routinely calls you, mark the incoming call on your phone's record and return to the contacts feature in your phone later. If you're an iPhone user, Katzoff says you can use the phone's privacy feature to block the number from calling you in the future. You can do so by editing the contact file on your phone and selecting the "Block the Caller" feature. "Or, another trick I use when I receive a spam call is that I add it to a 'Spam - Do Not Answer' contact in my phone, which is something that both Android and iOS users can do," he says.
Ask Your Carrier for Call Screening Apps
Once your phone number has been added to automated phone lists, it might seem impossible to stop the barrage of spam calls—but Walsh shares that your carrier might be able to help minimize the damage. Nearly all of the leading phone carriers provide call screening apps to their customers, he says. "If your service provider's app is not doing the job well enough and spam calls are still getting through, you can turn to a third-party option such as YouMail, Hiya, Truecaller, or Robokiller. These kinds of apps can automatically screen and block calls, and they will provide you with information about the calls it has dealt with on your behalf."
File a Formal Complaint with the FTC
If you notice that the same number is repeatedly calling you about promotional services or a known scam, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This should be your last resort, as most callers will continue to pester you (formal legal action is rather complicated, says Joseph McClelland, an Atlanta-based consumer protection attorney who specializes in this area of litigation). Filing a complaint is a more formal process than other options on this list, but it can help you if you've asked a telemarketer or a retailer to stop contacting you—both bureaus can take action against these businesses elsewhere if a complaint is registered. "Generally speaking, failing to honor your request [to stop calling] may create legal liability for them," McClelland says. "You may also consider mailing a letter to the business, as well." You can visit the FTC's website for more legal resources on how to stop spam callers here.