5 Ways to Combat Illegal Robocalls

Scam callers target older adults, but there are ways to protect your loved one.

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- Posted on Oct 15, 2019

A vintage orange rotary phone.

Jessica Bibbo, PhD is a Research Scientist with the Center for Research and Education at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

It’s not in your imagination: robocalls are getting worse. The term has been in use since the 1990s, but in the past few years, the calls have become a fact of daily life. As more and more calls are being placed, advanced technology allows for scammers to make the calls look even more authentic. Older adults are easy prey for illegal robocallers, so it is important that you know what steps you can take to keep your loved one safe.

Not all robocalls are illegal. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), defines robocalls as calls made by an automatic dialer, using a pre-recorded message. Legal robocalls include those that are informational (for example, an appointment reminder, or notification that a flight you are booked on has been cancelled or delayed), debt collection calls and calls from political candidates or from non-profits with whom you already have a relationship, such as a charity you have previously donated to.   

The majority of robocalls are illegal, however, and many of those illegal calls are scams. One common example is ‘spoofing,’ which happens when a scammer uses an automatic dialer to display a specific number on your caller ID. Scammers know that people are much more likely to pick up a local number, even when it isn’t familiar, than they are when it’s from an unknown area code. 

Scammers intentionally target robocalls toward older adults. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people ages 60 and older are more likely to report robocalls and are more susceptible to lose money over the phone than are younger adults. The impact of these unsolicited calls on older adults is serious, and the issue has been taken up by the United States Senate Special Commission on Aging.  

The problem is growing. According to the YouMail Robocall Index, in 2018, 47.8 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S. In the first half of 2019 alone, 34 billion calls were placed. 

If your loved one has been getting robocalls or calls from unfamiliar numbers, you can help by strongly suggesting the following measures:

1. Don’t answer the phone. The best way to combat scam callers is to let it ring when you don’t recognize the number. If your loved one does answer and it’s a robocall, make sure he or she disconnects quickly. 

2. If the phone is answered and a recording gives instructions to press a number to be taken off a list or talk to someone, the call should be ended immediately. Following instructions or otherwise engaging signals the robocaller that a person is on the line. This can lead to getting more robocalls. 

3. The call should also be ended immediately if the recording claims it is on behalf of an agency or institution with which your loved one is familiar, such as Social Security, the IRS or a bank. You or your loved one can determine whether the call may be a scam by calling back the agency or institution, using a phone number you know is real, or the officially listed number.

4. Because robocalls from debt collection agencies are legal, this is exploited by scammers. If your loved one receives a call or voicemail saying he or she owes money due to a loan or purchase, do not return the call. Instead, call the agency with whom you have a loan to be sure payments are current. You can check your loved one’s bank records to verify that a purchase was made with a particular company. This FTC website provides information on how to obtain a free credit report. If either of you is unsure about what loans may have been taken out, the best way to find out is to get a free copy of your credit report. 

5. Never call back a number you don’t recognize. Never return a call if the phone only rings once or if no voicemail message has been left. If there is a voicemail message, always look up the number yourself before calling back.   

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communication Commission have more information about what to do if your loved one receives a robocall. Both organizations ask that you or your loved one report the robocalls in order for the agency to track and prosecute those who are making illegal robocalls. You can report to the FCC here and report to the FTC here. Unfortunately, reporting will not immediately decrease the number of calls your loved one receives, but it can have a positive impact on prosecuting those who are behind robocalls. 

Putting a barrier between your loved one and robocallers is the most effective way to minimize the problem. To find the call blocking service from your loved one’s phone carrier, click on the “Call Blocking Resources” tab on the FCC website. Resources are provided for both wireless and landline phones. Unfortunately, adding a phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry does not limit the number of robocalls someone gets, as only legal telemarketers use this registry. 

As a reminder, it’s a good idea to post information beside your loved one’s primary phone (such as the tips above or this tip sheet published by the FCC). Doing so can be especially useful for someone with any level of memory or cognitive impairment. 

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