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We’ve all been there. You’re relaxing at home, minding your own business, when suddenly you receive a call from a number you don’t recognize. You let it ring a few times, unsure if you want to pick up, but eventually shrug and hit Accept.

And instead of another human, you hear what appears to be a prerecorded message about something you likely don’t care about. In some cases, the message isn’t even prerecorded — it’s generated on-the-fly using text-to-speech technology.

Robocalls are impersonal and, more importantly, annoying. Why do they exist? How are they allowed? And what can you do to get them out of your life forever? Keep reading to find out.

What Are Robocalls, Exactly?

In short, a robocall is any phone call that’s delivered using an autodialer (a device that automatically dials numbers without a human operator), usually resulting in a prerecorded message and/or a transferral to a live operator.

Autodialers are awesome — from the caller’s point of view, anyway — because they can reach out to thousands of phone numbers per minute. Wrong number? No pickup? Disconnected line? No problem, instantly hop to the next number in line.

Robocalls are used extensively for all kinds of purposes: appointment reminders, credit card fraud alerts, research pollsters, political campaigns, telemarketing, and unfortunately, even scams. But legitimate or not, they can be quite the nuisance.

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In the United States, robocalls are only legal if they fulfill two requirements. Automated prerecorded messages must 1) identify who is initiating the call and 2) provide information on how the initiator can be contacted.

Furthermore, robocalls to mobile phones are illegal unless the recipient has given prior consent. For landlines, however, robocalls are only illegal if the call is commercial in nature. (So it’s legal to be bombarded by political campaigns on a landline but not a cell phone, for example.)

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission took steps to increase and clarify protections for consumers against robocalls. For examples, text messages must abide by the same regulations as mobile calls and consumers may revoke permissions at any time.

How Do They Get Your Number?

At this point, you’re probably wondering how these robocallers even have your phone number in the first place. After all, they’re not allowed to call you if you haven’t given them permission to, right? Well…

The truth is, you probably have given them permission and just didn’t realize it. There are a lot of ways that someone can be suckered into consenting to robocalls, and it happens more often than you might think.

Registrations are a common point of failure. The next time you sign up for a new service, answer questionnaires or surveys, or submit some kind of feedback form that asks for your phone number, think twice before giving it out. Simply inputting it could be interpreted as tacit consent.

Furthermore, when a service tells you to read and agree to its Terms of Service, look for any fine print about robocalling. If you’re the kind of person who blindly clicks Agree, you could be granting robocalling permissions to a lot of services.

stop-telemarketers-robocalls-how

And it doesn’t just end there. Some entities, like insurance companies, ask for permission to share your information with other parties — and that means sharing (or selling) your phone number with others so that they can robocall you instead.

Yep, email addresses aren’t the only things being sold How Do Spammers Find Your Email Address? How Do Spammers Find Your Email Address? Spam is the closest thing we’ll ever find to an Internet plague. No matter who you are, spam will one day find you and you’ll have no choice but to put up with its pestilence.... Read More .

Furthermore, any private details you share publicly online (e.g. real name, home address, etc.) could be scraped by a private Web crawler How Do Search Engines Work? How Do Search Engines Work? To many people, Google IS the internet. It's arguably the most important invention since the Internet itself. And while search engines have changed a lot since, the underlying principles are still the same. Read More , then cross-checked with all kinds of public databases (e.g. census data, property records, deeds and mortgages, etc.) to find your contact information.

Honestly, these things are quick to come and bite you in the rear. Even something as innocent as putting your phone number in your email signature could be problematic. Not only can emails can be intercepted Why Email Can't Be Protected From Government Surveillance Why Email Can't Be Protected From Government Surveillance “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either,” said the owner of secure email service Lavabit as he recently shut it down. "There is no way to do encrypted... Read More , but email viruses are still a real problem 7 Important Email Security Tips You Should Know About 7 Important Email Security Tips You Should Know About Internet security is a topic that we all know to be important, but it often sits way back in the recesses of our minds, fooling ourselves into believing that "it won’t happen to me". Whether... Read More , and they could scrape your emails for details like that.

What Can You Do About It?

So you’ve made a few mistakes? That’s okay, everyone has. If you’re receiving robocalls, then it’s already too late for you (though you can still put the above into practice to prevent more incoming robocalls), but you aren’t completely out of luck yet.

Hang up right away. Some people claim that you can input a special number sequence to prevent robocallers from calling again, but that doesn’t really work these days. Others say that you should wait until the end of the call for directions to unsubscribe, but don’t do that either.

Talking or pressing buttons affirms to the robocaller that your number is a real working number, and they will flag it as such, which causes more calls to come your way. On the other hand, robocallers will tend to pass over numbers that are disconnected or never pick up.

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Sign up to the Do Not Call list. The United States has a National Do Not Call Registry that’s easy to enroll in. Legally, telemarketers aren’t supposed to contact you if you’re on the list, but while most telemarketers respect the Do Not Call list, some don’t. It’s not completely effective.

For those outside the United States, your country may have its own version. For example, the U.K. has the Telephone Preference Service, Canada has the National Do Not Call List, and Australia has the Do Not Call Register.

Revoke calling permission. If you unknowingly gave consent to a business to robocall you, you can always take it back. Call customer support and ask to be put onto the company’s own do-not-call list.

Also, keep a record of when you made the request. Wait at least a month, and if they don’t stop harassing you with unwanted calls, report them to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

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Block individual numbers. If you’re being hounded by the same few numbers, consider blocking them. Most Android and iOS phones can do this without third-party apps, but if not, apps do exist for this purpose. Some apps can even identify incoming calls as spam.

Another option is to make a Google Voice account 5 Cool Things You Can Do With Google Voice 5 Cool Things You Can Do With Google Voice Read More , forward calls to your actual number, and start using the Google Voice number as your main number. Google Voice allows you to block specific numbers.

Always read the fine print. It’s a pain in the neck, I know, but whenever you’re presented with Terms of Service and you’re asked for your phone number, check the fine print.

Next time, use a fake phone number. If you really need to sign up for something and a phone number is required, consider using a fake one. Obvious this depends on the situation. Getting a store credit card? Sure, use a fake. Paperwork for the dentist? No, use your real number.

Share Your Robocall Experiences

In 2014, the FTC was receiving over 150,000 robocall-related complaints every month, so you can rest assured knowing that you aren’t alone in this. The unfortunate truth, however, is that robocalls have been and will continue to be a problem for years to come.

The above tips should help lessen the annoyances. Be careful about publicly exposing your phone number, sign up for the Do Not Call list, don’t interact with robocalls, and block any numbers that pester you. Other than that, there’s little to be done except complain to the FTC.

How many robocalls do you get every month? What steps have you taken to fight them? Has anything worked? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Image Credits: robot hand by zentilia via Shutterstock, Picking Up Phone by Lahutkin Anatolii via Shutterstock, Signing Contract by Bacho via Shutterstock, Do Not Call by CarmenKarin via Shutterstock, Unhooked Phone by Gajus via Shutterstock

  1. MR TANNER CONSTRUCTION
    October 25, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    our company phone is with Century Link. We receive 6-10 robo calls every day and they only connect for 1-3 seconds. We have been unable to trace the call. It seems the computer autodials our number 5-25 times in a row before it stops. This is very disruptive to our business. it has been going for over a month now. We tried the Do not call list and are waiting the 30 days to see if it helps. Century Link says there is nothing they can do. Please help stop this practice.

  2. Justin Holiday
    August 24, 2016 at 1:45 am

    The 3-in-1 Home Security Systems (aka United Security) keeps calling me day and night with one of the following caller IDs over the past month.
    (1) 13865168469
    (2) 13195191170
    (3) 12109811407
    (4) 13165308028
    (5) 14243438298
    (6) 14078741110
    (7) 14308030538
    (8) 15024969018
    (9) 16123514669
    (10) 16314083191
    (11) 17018050475

    • Blue
      October 17, 2016 at 2:59 am

      I keep getting these phone calls too from some home secruity company!!! Here's some more numbers for people to block.

      16093579015
      16283336458
      19167588678
      19739260816

  3. Rajan
    June 16, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    The relentless telemarketer's calls really upset me. The Do Not Call blocking does not work. Government does not seem to have better way to help us either. They just keep calling and calling, multiple times a day, sometimes waking me up at night. The recent really annoying one comes from "Free 3-in-1 Wireless Security System", using various Caller IDs, including (715) 304-0676, (682) 205-2766, (570) 867-8743, (904) 245-1611, (612) 314-9242, etc, calling me day and nights. My cell phone, with earlier version of Android and can't be upgraded, does not support number blocking functionality. And that's company's phone, for on-call production support, must be turned on 24 hours a day.

    As a counter measure, I install Asterisk in my home Raspberry Pi, and set up a SIP trunking with a SIP service provider. That uses my money but it's not too much and I don't care to spend that. Using shell script, I randomly setup an outgoing caller ID for each call, and schedule a cron job to run every few minutes to automatically call one of any of my received telemarketing numbers. Once the call is pickup, wait 10 seconds and hang up. That is, I am using robot calls to defeat robot or human calls.

    Please thank me if you receive fewer spam calls lately. And if you can do something similar as above, that will be even better. Together, we will defeat the harassment calls!

  4. Paul
    April 19, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    Apparently they are now starting to add office noise to the software. I mentioned not liking a robot call me, and I immediately heard a bunch of typing, ringing phones, and background mumbles while the voice said "I am a real person, just talking through a computer".

    • Joel Lee
      April 23, 2016 at 10:49 pm

      Haha, wow. That's actually kinda clever. Had no idea that was a thing... Thanks for the info, Paul!

    • Kelly
      July 29, 2016 at 4:07 pm

      Yeah, I've noticed the same thing happening.

  5. Elad Peleg
    March 24, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    I can't belive no one here mentioned true caller! It recognizes about 95% of the numbers dialing to me, automatically marks spam calls and it's completely free

    https://www.truecaller.com

  6. bob bensman
    March 17, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Check out telezapper2020.com that I just heard about.

    It appears to be an advanced calling feature that enables all cellular, VoIP (internet), and landline carriers to easily block virtually ALL unwanted computer-generated, telemarketing, Robo and tele-criminal calls for their subscribers.
    It works within the providers call processing mainframe network to prevent virtually all telemarketing and Robo calls from being completed to the subscriber. It seems to be designed so that in most cases your phone will never even ring. Robo callers just get Zapped. I’m calling my carrier today to see if they offer it yet and will switch phone service if this works and my carrier doesn’t offer it. I know this is a brand new so if someone finds a carrier who already offers this service, please post if for all to see. I need to get it for my cell and landline ASAP!

  7. Maryon Jeane
    February 26, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Yes, in the UK we have the Telephone Preference Service - and it's as much use as a sick headache, frankly. Not only does it only block callers of this type from within the UK (or maybe EU?) whereas a vast number actually come from the US and other places outside that remit, but it doesn't seem to block all calls from inland either. I don't know if this is to do with the companies concerned being registered outside the UK, but whatever the case it's simply a waste of time registering - and that goes for fax numbers etc. as well.

    As I work from home this robocalling grew into a huge problem. I was, quite literally, being called day and night both through the telephone and the fax machine, and was being woken up every night. I tried various solutions (starting with the wretched TPS), and then finally stumped up the upfront amount for a trueCall (and no, I'm not affiliated with them). Perfect solution. Yes, it's expensive at the outset but after that it's either free or you just pay a nominal amount for the online dashboard (£15 a year, I think, and you don't have to have it because you can do everything through the handset of your telephone). It not only blocks calls but you can customise things like blocking all calls, or all calls except for particular numbers, during some hours of the day or night, or you can block all international calls by default - all sorts of options.

    It's not worth wasting time on elaborate workrounds or protections which have to be upkept or renewed - investing in a trueCall is a one-time thing and it works perfectly. Oh - and you can analyse your logs if you have the dashboard, and I get around 150 robocalls a month!

    • Joel Lee
      March 1, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      Hmm, interesting. I've never heard of them before. Thanks for the heads up about it, it sounds really useful if it works as you say it does. :)

  8. Jeff S
    February 26, 2016 at 10:17 am

    I get calls daily. The biggest problem isn't legit robo callers. It's the scams that spoof their phone number so that it appears to be a local number. I even got a call from one "reduce your credit card interest rate" scam that showed MY cell phone number in the caller ID. IMO, spoofing phone numbers just enables robo calling scammers.

    • fcd76218
      February 26, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      "legit robo callers."
      Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

      "I get calls daily."
      If the calls are to your landline, I would strongly register with NoMoRobo. No, I am in no way affiliated with them. I amjust a satisfied user of their service.

  9. Phid ippides
    February 26, 2016 at 1:08 am

    This article stops short of tapping into the greater potential of using Google Voice to reduce unwanted calls. I started getting a lot of telemarketing calls after I registered a domain name without making my registration info private. Mistake. Once I realized what happened, I changed the phone number on my registration details to my Google Voice number. Google Voice filters out spam calls automatically, so now I almost never get telemarketers trying to reach me these days. I would suggest that people use a Google Voice number when signing up for services that they think might give out their number.

    A few telemarketers still call, so when they do, I add them to a "Telemarketer" contact entry that I created on my phone (I tend to get telemarketers calling from the same numbers). I set the ringtone for Telemarketers to silent, so now if one calls I will never hear it and it won't disrupt my day.

    • Joel Lee
      March 1, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks for the tips and elaborating on how to use Google Voice, Phid. Really appreciate it. I'll give that a try when I can. :)

  10. fcd76218
    February 25, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    You can sign up for the Do Not Call list. However, I think you have to re-register every 5 years.

    To stop robocalls to my landline, I registered with NoMoRobo.com It's a free registration. They have a database of phone numbers from which robocalls are made. Once you register with NoMoRobo, you can add numbers that you want blocked. Using that feature of the service, I have drastically cut down on political calls.

    After you have registered with NoMoRobo, do not pick up the phone as soon as it starts ringing. You have give the service a chance to intercept the phone call and match its originating number against the database. If the number is in the database, NoMoRobo service severs the connection after one ring. If your phone rings more than once then you can be reasonably sure that it is not a robocall. Since robocalls are being made from new numbers, it is possible that one might get through every once in a while. If it does, just go to the NoMoRobo site and add the new number to their database and you will not be bothered by that caller again.

    • Joel Lee
      March 1, 2016 at 3:03 pm

      Thanks for the tips! I've heard that NoMoRobo is spotty: sometimes it works, but not always. But hey, with robocalls, any amount of protection is better than none. They're so annoying! Anyway, good to know. :)

      • fcd76218
        March 1, 2016 at 5:54 pm

        " I’ve heard that NoMoRobo is spotty"
        In close to two years year of use, I am very satisfied. Just like with malware, you cannot stop 100% of occurences. As I said, since miscreants constantly use new numbers, occasionally a robocall will get through. If it happens more than once and you have caller ID, just sign on to the NoMoRobo site and add the number to their database. The only calls that I can do nothing about are the ones that say "Number Unavailable" or "Number Blocked." Happily there aren't to many of them.

        If you don't want to get phone calls from your mother in law, just add her number to the database. :-)

        I registered with the National Do Not Call list shortly after it became active. It was a joke. I was still getting inundated with calls from the number that were exempt, politicians, charities, etc. Then I registered with NoMoRobo and started adding unwanted numbers to their database. Now, all I hear is one ring and that's it.

        I also use my answering machine to screen calls. If I do not recognize the number, I let the machine pick up the phone. If somebody wants me badly enough, they'll leave a message. 99.9% of the time there will be no message.

        • Kay Stone
          December 6, 2016 at 12:12 pm

          Do not want to get phone calls from your mother in law - what a sexist cliche. How about pervy, ugly men?

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