By Lily Hay Newman
So, yes, robocalls. They are a big issue. You probably get them multiple times a week, or multiple times a day. Sometimes you’re waiting for an important call, only to get an automated voice offering you a new yacht. Or you miss an important call, because you thought it might be the yacht bros again. It’s a maddening cycle. And though the total volume of robocalls in the US is down a bit from its all-time high in March, according to call blocking service YouMail, that still amounted to 4.7 billion robocalls in May.
Robocalling is certainly not a new scourge, and some its recent decline may indicate that blocking technologies and high-profile enforcement efforts are actually working. But many of the truly new defenses carriers are working on haven’t fully rolled out yet, and the Federal Communications Commission is still catching up on long-time proposals. On Thursday, the agency finally approved phone carriers to begin blocking robocalls by default, a proposal that first surfaced in the Obama administration.
Though robocalls will never disappear completely there are some things you can do to keep your phone from ringing off the hook all the time.
Download a Call Blocking App From Your Mobile Carrier
The four—soon to be three—major wireless carriers all offer apps and services that block spam calls, or at least label them as suspicious, so you know not to pick up. Most of the apps started out as paid features, but the carriers have slowly made the tools free over the last 18 months as robocalling has escalated from nuisance to disaster. Some of these features may get baked into your service automatically now that the FCC has expanded carriers’ legal ability to block spam calls, but for now use these tools to get some relief.
Verizon‘s “Call Filter” app detects and blocks spam calls, and you can adjust its sensitivity depending on how worried you are about possibly missing legitimate calls. For $2.99 per month, you can add some extra call data and monitoring features, like customizable blocking lists. AT&T’s app is “Call Protect.” It provides similar caller ID warnings and call blocking features, and for $3.99 per month you can get expanded options like reverse number lookup. T-Mobile automatically offers caller ID warnings, “ScamID,” for all customers on monthly plans when a number seems suspicious. You can also use the company’s “Scam Block” feature to screen calls for free. Sign up online or by dialing #662# on any T-Mobile smartphone. Sprint is the only carrier that still doesn’t have a free call screening option. Its app, “Premium Caller ID,” costs $2.99 per month to use.
Consider a Third-Party Blocking App
You can also use third-party apps to manage and block calls. Only use reputable services that you download from the official Google Play Store or iOS App Store, since the permissions you grant to anti-robocalling apps make it an attractive cover for spyware or other malicious downloads. Even among legit options, think carefully before granting access to your contacts list. Additionally, keep in mind that a call management app needs to, by definition, access information about all of your calls. If you want to keep this data to yourself, you’re better off using one of the wireless carrier offerings since, they have access to your call data anyway. But if you’re feeling desperate, you can give one of these options a try.
Both RoboKiller ($1 per month) and Nomorobo ($2 per month) came out of anti-robocalling incubators run by the FTC a few years ago, and have grown in popularity since. Other well-known options include Hiya, Truecaller, and YouMail. Some, like Nomorobo, even offer spam call blocking for landlines provided over fiber. There isn’t a lot you can do for old landlines on copper wire, though.
Like carrier apps, none of these services will eliminate every robocall, but they can contribute to a patchwork of mechanisms that work to bring your overall spam call volume down.
Sign Up for the Do Not Call Registry
The FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry only focuses on telemarketing calls, rather than spam, given robocalling is, you know, already illegal. But it still helps weed out marketing calls, and every little bit counts. You can sign up here. You can also report abusive calls you receive to the FTC here. Those numbers get fed directly into the Do Not Call Registry, which catalogues bad actors in addition to people who want to be left alone.
Block Numbers Yourself
Android and iOS both offer call blocking options, controlled directly through the operating system, that you can set up to avoid common calls. It’s a list you’re curating yourself by manually adding numbers, but it can be helpful if you notice that the same number spams you over and over again. On iOS just go to your phone’s call log under Recents, tap the information icons on the far right next to each call entry, and scroll down to Block this Caller. The flow to block calls is the same on Android (Phone > Recents > “Block and Report Call As Spam.”) To activate Android’s additional call screening protections go to Settings > Caller ID & Spam and then toggle the feature on.
Google also offers a machine learning-powered call screening service for its Pixel 3 handsets in which the service itself picks up suspicious calls, interacts with the caller, and then sends you a transcript of what went down so you can decide whether you want to call back. Android and iOS also both offer “Do Not Disturb” modes that block all calls and notifications except ones you’ve specifically marked to come through.
Even the most radical and innovative solutions for robocalling can only control and manage the problem—it’s not something that can ever be fully solved. But with the tools at your disposal now, plus those coming soon from the FCC and carriers, the worst is hopefully behind you.