Teresa McUsic

How to stop robocalls on your home phone and smartphone

Teresa McUsic

Robocalls continue to plague homeowners — especially senior citizens at home all day with a traditional land line — and the volume is worse than ever.

American consumers and businesses received an estimated 29.3 billion in unwanted telemarketing calls in 2016, based on the YouMail Robocall Index released this week.

Texas received the most statewide robocalls in the U.S. for the seventh consecutive month, with 283.1 million calls received in December, according to the index. The 817 area code ranked 9th in the nation in robocall volume with 22.6 million calls. Dallas and Houston made the Top 10 among cities.

At the same time, the number of robocall complaints to the Federal Trade Commission increased almost 50 percent last year from the previous year to 5.3 million. Robocalls continue to be the No. 1 complaint to the FTC.

But my house is quiet from these unwanted and sometimes scam-related phone calls. And me answering machine is not clogged with messages.

Last year, I signed up for Nomorobo, a free service that screens incoming calls using something called “simultaneous ring.” Both you and Nomorobo get the same call. If it is legitimate, the call continues to ring to your home. If not, you hear one ring, then Nomorobo intercepts the robocall and hangs up for you.

I hear one-ring calls generally a couple of times a day. Much better than the constant ringing from robocallers.

Nomorobo, the winner of the 2013 Robocall Challenge by the Federal Trade Commission, claims to have stopped more than 185 million robocalls, while allowing “legal” robocalls from school districts, drugstores or other services that use automatic calling.

But here’s the catch: Nomorobo doesn’t work with traditional landlines. I have a home line through Spectrum (formerly Time Warner). Nomorobo also works on AT&T’s U-verse, Charter Spectrum, Vonage and other voice-over-internet phone lines. It also has a smartphone app that costs $1.99 a month.

So when I’m asked about how to stop robocalls, I have two immediate answers. One is to switch to a phone service that carries Nomorobo (remember you can still keep your old phone number). A list of phone companies that work with Nomorobo can be found at www.Nomorobo.com.

The other is to cancel your landline completely and use one of the many free apps available to block unwanted calls on your cell phone.

Hope may be on the horizon for stopping robocalls on traditional landlines. In October, AT&T said it was working with vendors to be ready for “carrier interoperability verification” by this fall. The standards would make it easier to mitigate robocalls and go after the scammers, the company said.

But there is currently no technical solution by telecom companies for the traditional landline, said Tim Marvin, campaign manager for End Robocalls for Consumers Union.

“Part of the reason is it’s old technology that nobody wants to invest in,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of seniors have a traditional landline and they are the target group for the more vicious scams out there.”

Consumers Union estimates that telephone scams cost consumers around $350 million annually.

While there are some add-on devices that can stop the calls, the solutions aren’t typically easy for a senior citizen to install, Marvin said.

Call blocking devices on Amazon range from $33 to $99. Consumers Union reviewers recommend Digitone Call Blocker ($95), but be warned that nine of the 24 testers found the instructions confusing.

While seniors tend to have the robocall problem on their landlines, millennials are having it on cell phones, said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, which offers a free app for iPhone and Androids to block unwanted calls for 8 million users.

“Most adults have been giving out their landline number over the years, but millennials are giving out their cell phone number,” he said. That has pushed the robocall problem to cell phones, he said.

Following the trends of their users, Quilici said robocalls are divided almost equally between debt collectors, other legitimate users and scammers.

Debt collectors often use automated calls for payment reminders, he said. For example, the No. 1 registered robocaller in the 817 area code last month was Conn’s debt collection, with debt collectors for Capital One and Wells Fargo also on the Top Ten list, Quilici said. Others included the Fort Worth ISD and Charter Communications.

While signing up on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry will not solve the problem with scammers, who don’t look at the registry before dialing, it will stop other callers, Marvin said. The registry currently has more than 226 million registered phones (and registration does not expire.) You can register your numbers at www.donotcall.gov.

Being on the list — and reporting abusive robocalls — also helps the FTC build cases against scammers. Last week, the FTC cracked down on two massive telemarketing robocall groups.

One group illegally made millions of robocalls in 2012 and 2013 to consumers on the DNC Registry selling home security systems or generating leads for home security installation companies, according to the FTC. The other group made billions of robocalls over an eight-year period selling extended auto warranties, home security systems and search engine optimization services.

Most agreed to a permanent ban from making robocalls and fines totaling more than $500,000.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net