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Robocall wars: How you can fight back

Consumers have tools to keep the annoying calls at bay

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller calls them “the bane of our existence”: robocalls and other annoying, unwanted phone solicitations. And they’re getting worse.

There were 4 billion robocalls placed in July, up from 2.6 billion in July 2017, according to YouMail, which tracks the most common auto-dialed calls every month.  The company’s website lists high-risk numbers from 515 and other area codes, including scams involving interest rates, travel, insurance and vehicle warranties.

Consumers should ignore calls from unknown numbers and let them go to voicemail. Of course, that’s difficult if you operate a business that must answer the phone. And many of the numbers are “spoofed,” meaning that the callers are using a number that could belong to someone else, perhaps someone you know.

In June, an Indianola auto shop had its phone number spoofed by a scammer, and as a result, Chumbley’s Auto Care received thousands of calls from irked central Iowans, KCCI reported. So keep that in mind before you call back the number a robocaller uses.

While there’s no single way to stop all unwanted calls, consumers do have a few tools to fight back:

Just hang up: If you do answer a suspected scam call, end it immediately. Don’t provide or “confirm” financial or personal information, as the request may be fraudulent. Don’t press a button to stop receiving calls or say "yes" in response to a question. Scammers often use these tricks to identify, and then target, live respondents, or to use your "yes" to apply unauthorized charges on your bill. If the caller claims to be from a legitimate company, charity, agency or other group, hang up and call the organization using a valid number found on its website or on your latest bill if you are customer of the business.

Contact your phone company: Many mobile and landline carrier offer robocall blocking services. (If yours does not, encourage them to offer one.) Some offer these services for free, and others for a charge of $3 to $4 a month. Independent studies have shown that most carriers’ services are able to identify problematic calls. Lionbridge studied the major mobile carriers and found that T-Mobile was the best overall at identifying calls, particularly scam calls.  A different study by Mind Commerce found that Verizon's "Enhanced Caller Name ID" was the most accurate. If you are in the market for a new carrier, check out their robocall alert services as part of your considerations.

Download an app: Call-blocking apps — such as YouMail — can intercept robocalls before they reach you. Some, including RoboKiller and Nomorobo, have won awards from the Federal Trade Commission for their success in stopping calls. Some apps are free and others offer monthly or annual membership fees. Before you download, read the privacy policy, warns Consumer Reports. Some of the “free” apps will access your contact lists.

Get on the list: Register your telephone numbers in the National Do Not Call Registry (or call 1-888-382-1222). If you registered your landline or wireless number with the registry, the Federal Communications Commission forbids commercial telemarketers from calling you, subject to certain exceptions. Those exceptions include marketers with whom you have conducted business within the last 18 months; tax-exempt and non-profit entities; businesses contacting you about an existing debt, contract or payment; businesses that started within the past year; health or safety-related prerecorded messages or emergency calls; and organizations to which you have given prior consent. Getting on the list also won’t stop calls from scammers, many of whom operate in other countries.  

File a complaint: If you have lost money because of a scam call, contact your local law enforcement agency or the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. To file a complaint, go here or call  515-281-5926 (in Des Moines area) or 888-777-4590 (outside the metro area). Even if you don’t fall for the scam, it’s a good idea to report such calls to the FCC Consumer Complaint Center and/or the FTC Complaint Assistant. The complaints help the agencies track trends and support enforcement investigations.

Call your lawmaker: Federal and state officials are looking at ways to stay one step ahead of scammers. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller joined with other AGs last year in asking the FCC to adopt rules to help block some spoofed calls. The FCC adopted these rules in November, but many questions remain about whether the rules go far enough. Consumers have a chance to weigh in as regulators and the courts find the balance between allowing legitimate commercial communications and preventing spam calls.


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