How to Avoid Robocall Scams

Dealing with robocallsAt least one of every five phone calls now made is a robocall, and many are the work of scammers. You may hate these automated annoyances, but scammers love them: They’re cheap, far-reaching and hard to trace. No surprise that the Federal Trade Commission receives some 200,000 complaints about these calls each month.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. If they’re selling, assume they’re scamming. Fraudsters may tout “free” in their recorded messages, but ask yourself this: Since when do legitimate businesses spend time and money to offer no-cost goods and services to strangers with no strings attached?

Keep that in mind the next time you’re offered a “free” medical device by AARP or others. The same applies to promises of free or discounted home alarms, medications and vacations, or offers to lower your credit card or mortgage rate.

>> Slideshow: Top Scams to Avoid

Unless you have previously provided written permission to a company, telemarketing (aka “sales”) messages are illegal. The exceptions: political messages for a candidate or party position, and charities to solicit donations (but you’re safer making donations on your own, not in response to robocalls).

2. If it’s not personal, it’s probably a scam. Unlike personalized reminder calls from doctor’s offices, or road- and school-closing announcements affecting your area, scam robocall campaigns do not mention your name or other personal identifiers.

That’s because your phone number is typically arbitrarily selected (among thousands or millions of others) to receive the same message. Scammers simply select a pool of phone numbers – say, dial X phone numbers starting and ending with certain digits (an area code, prefix or ending four digits) – and computerized systems take over. The autodialers, like the scammers, usually don’t know who owns those numbers or if they’re working. And neither machine nor scammer knows or cares if your number is on the Do Not Call Registry.

3. Don’t let “local” numbers lure you. Because many folks are smart enough not to pick up the phone when caller ID displays a number they don’t recognize, scammers have upped their game by using technology that allows them to spoof local numbers. For instance, I receive several scam robocalls per day – pitching medical-alert devices and interest-rate-lowering ploys – that falsely display the same phony number, which differs from my own phone number by only the last digit.

Also be wary of “legitimate” numbers; the IRS’ number is being used in a scam alleging that you owe back taxes and face arrest or other hardships unless you immediately pay up. (In truth, government agencies use U.S. mail for official business.) Of course, any incoming call that displays “private,” “unknown,” or 999-9999 or a similar sequence should be considered a likely scam.

4. Don’t help them harass you. Unless you are confirming a reminder from a health care provider or other expected robocall, your best defense is to simply hang up. Never provide sensitive information – even a name and certainly not a credit card.

Don’t follow instructions to make a numeric selection to “opt out” or be transferred to someone (if only to complain about being on the Do Not Call Registry). Pressing any key logs your number as working and confirms that a human has answered, making you even more vulnerable for future calls.

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And if there are a few seconds of dead silence after you say “Hello,” the call is likely from a telemarketing center using “predictive dialing” technology, through which a computer dials multiple phone numbers over a short period. When you answer, the computer is meant to quickly transfer you to an available telemarketer, and the usual sales pitch follows. But if all sales reps are occupied with other calls, you hear nothing. Again, sales calls are illegal and are often scams.

What can you do to stop the scam calls?

Although it’s unlikely you can stop all scam robocalls, you can curb the flow. If you have an Internet-based (VoIP) phone service (think Verizon FiOS vs. regular Verizon), visit If you don’t have VoIP, call your carrier and request that it support the Nomorobo feature.

You can also ask your phone service provider to block robocall numbers; don’t pay for this service, though, because scammers frequently change the numbers they use for display on recipients’ caller ID.

And even though most caller ID-displayed numbers in robocalls are fake (or stolen from legitimate entities), report them to or call 1-888-382-1222. This really does help the FTC better identify violators, make undercover purchases of scamming products and services, and bring action against fraudsters.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up-to-date on the latest scams in your area.

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