Robocalls have become an insidious part of daily life. Our phones are perpetually plagued by calls from unknown numbers, leaving us with useless missed calls, voicemails and wasted time. In fact, in recent years they’ve reached epidemic proportions for both consumers and businesses: American’s phones ring five billion — BILLION — times in a single month! Just from robocalls. That’s nearly 2,000 calls per second.
While many legitimate organizations use robocalls as a part of their messaging, so do con-artists. Scammers use robocalls from bogus companies claiming to lower utility bills or credit card rates, government grants, vacation packages and calls from individuals posing as IRS agents.
But scam or not, unwanted or not, not all robocalls are illegal. With the presidential race at the top of the ballot, this is a huge election year. Recorded messages about candidates are perfectly legal. Messages that are solely informational, for example a reminder from your doctor’s office or an airline letting you know about a flight cancellation, are also permitted. Prerecorded messages from banks, telephone carriers and charities also are exempt from these rules if the organizations make the calls themselves.
The red flags start should start flapping if the recording is trying to sell you something. If it’s a sales message and you haven’t given written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal.
But have no fear — there may be relief in sight. In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a rule that now allows phone companies to block robocalls before they even get to you. Landline and cellular providers are also trying to do their part by offering call blocking services. Last month, new federal legislation was passed to tackle the problem in a way that would put more responsibility on phone companies to protect their customers.
But wait! There’s even more ammo aimed at combating this epidemic. Most recently, and for the first time ever, the Federal Government is going after specific companies that help facilitate illegal robocall operations. In late January 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed civil actions against five companies and three individuals that are allegedly responsible for carrying 720 million robocalls to American consumers over the course of a 23-day sample period last year.
In a heat map provided by the Department of Justice, Idahoans reportedly received over 770,000 in a six-day period last May. On its website the Department of Justice explained, “Social Security imposters, IRS imposters, and tech-support schemes have proliferated in part because of the ease with which robocalls can reach millions of potential victims every hour.”
The Better Business Bureau advises the best way to protect yourself from unwanted robocalls is to hang up. If you engage with the caller, you’re likely to get even more. Don’t trust caller ID; scammers can spoof their number to look like it’s coming from a legitimate organization. Look into call-blocking technologies offered by your phone service. And lastly, report illegal calls to the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov/complaint; the more information they have the better they can help.