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.
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.
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.
Furthermore, any private details you share publicly online (e.g. real name, home address, etc.) could be scraped by a private web crawler, 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, but email viruses are still a real problem, and they could scrape your emails for details like that.
What Can You Do About Robocalls?
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.
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).
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, 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.
You may want to start using a free phone number for calls and texts when you’re asked for a phone number, and reserve your actual phone number for friends and family only.
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