Robocalls, Telemarketing Calls Get Worse: What You Can Do

If annoying robocalls and telemarketing calls seem to be ringing your phone more frequently, you're not imagining it. A new report from the Federal Trade Commission says reports of telemarketing calls illegally placed to numbers on the Do Not Call registry, whether made by a human or an automated script, have increased steadily since 2014. (Even as we wrote this, we got a robocall on our cellphone.)

Credit: Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock)

According to the report, entitled "National Do Not Call Registry Data Book FY 2017," there were more than 7 million complaints of illegal marketing calls between October 2016 and September 2017, of which about 4.5 million were robocalls. Those numbers are fuzzy, as the FTC acknowledges that there was "a technical problem with complaint submissions that resulted in artificially high complaint counts in July and August."

Nevertheless, the data show a steady increase in unwanted marketing calls from both robots and humans since 2014. The FTC ascribes that to new technology that makes it easier to spoof local telephone numbers and rapidly place a high volume of calls from any location, including outside North America.

To cut down on unwanted calls, make sure you're signed up with the Do Not Call registry at That won't eliminate the problem entirely, but once you do sign up, then you can report any marketing calls to the FTC, which will try to track down the caller and impose fines. You can also block known illegal callers on your phone, although that won't stop calls made from automatically generated numbers.

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"Advancements in technology have increased the number of illegal telemarketing calls made to telephone numbers on the Registry," the FTC states in a report to Congress delivered last month. "For example, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology allows callers, including law-breakers, to make higher volumes of calls inexpensively from anywhere in the world. Technological developments also allow illegal telemarketers to easily fake the caller ID information that accompanies their calls."

The most common unwanted calls involved some sort of debt-reduction service ("Is the IRS hounding you?"), accounting for about 12 percent of the total, the FTC said.

After that, other hot topics included vacation and timeshare services ("You've won a free cruise!"), with about 4.2 percent; warranties and protection plans ("Has your warranty expired on your car?"), at 3.8 percent; medical and prescription issues at 2.8 percent; and "energy, solar and utilities" at 2 percent.

We were a bit disappointed that our favorite bugaboo, the tech-support scam, was so far down the list, showing up as "computer and technical support" with a paltry 1.7 percent. Notably, however, that was one of only two categories — the other was "home improvement and cleaning" — in which human callers outnumbered robocalls.

(A rather large chunk, 3.6 percent, was ascribed to "imposters," which could conceivably include fake tech-support technicians. The corresponding option on the Do Not Call unwanted-call reporting web page is "Calls pretending to be government, businesses, or family and friends.")

The growth in robocalls has outpaced that of traditional human-based calls, per the FTC's (admittedly somewhat flawed) statistics. Robocalls went from 1.73 million in 2014 to 2.12 million in 2015, then to 3.4 million in 2016 and 4.5 million in 2017, an overall increase of about 160 percent, with the largest year-over-year increase at 60 percent in 2016.

Meanwhile, human calls actually decreased slightly from 1.45 million in 2014 to 1.39 million in 2015, then rose to 1.58 million in 2016 and leapt to 2.56 million in 2017 (a 33 percent jump). Overall, that's a 77 percent increase from 2014 to 2017.

The FTC recommends a commercial solution called Nomorobo to help block robocalls, but it costs $2 per month per smartphone or cellphone. (Landlines are free, but it only works on VoIP phones, not regular plain old telephone service numbers.)  Using a database of known robocall dialing numbers, Nomorobo intercepts illegal robocalls before they get to you, but it may not work against callers that generate new dialing numbers.

You can do the same thing by blocking numbers that have made robocalls to your phone, but again, that method won't work against new numbers. There are also apps that "whitelist" callers so that only those on a designated list of approved numbers will get through, which means that only people you know well can reach you.

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Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.

  • Paul NZ
    Only pests I get are these wannabe's when pretend they're Microsoft. And want to get into my computer

    Easy way to fix that I can block their number on the phone
  • michaelmouse
    My S7 Samsung's memory allocated to blocking numbers has filled up, leaving the user totally in the dark as to which number to delete, trying to make more memory available. That software needs more user friendliness.
  • natekapi
    Dang, no mention of RoboKiller here? Seriously my favorite app. Getting back at all the telemarketers who call me is both hilarious and rewarding knowing that you're wasting their time!
  • SumTingW0ng
    20553440 said:
    My S7 Samsung's memory allocated to blocking numbers has filled up, leaving the user totally in the dark as to which number to delete, trying to make more memory available. That software needs more user friendliness.

    My home phone keeps getting these annoying robocalls and advertisement calls that annoying the heck out of me that I just want to smash the dang phone so it doesn't ring anymore. I don't know how these annoying bastards got my phone number, but they keeps calling me hours by hours, and days by days like seriously.

    Are there any free legitimate service to disable these robocalls and advertisement calls? My home phone log filled over 75 random names ID that I don't recognize at all for my entire life. In addition, these ringings disturb my peace sleep and day.
    I bought an old TV advertised device called "Teleblocker" that goes between the phone line and the phone. It answers the call and sends the three note "Out Of Service" tone to the caller. A robotic caller will assime that the number is bad and hang up. A human will wait for the "operator message" but by that time my answering machine takes the call. It has been working foy over twenty years!
  • skyking421
    I believe that I made a BIG mistake when I finally lost my temper and told a spammer that we will never, never, never buy or use any of your products. Wow! After that I started to receive at least 4 times as many unwanted calls. I don't answer them any more. If "RoboKiller" answers the call, will that make them made and put you on other "call lists".

    I have even received 3 calls that appeared as my own number!

    Another thought: I believe that AT&T (and others) are encouraging these calls by allowing "call ID spoofing" at all. I used to be an AT&T technician and think that they have the ability to TURN OFF ALL SPOOFING in the Central Office. If they can't turn it off, at least charge $0.10. or less, for each ID spoof. That would allow legitimate users (doctors, schools, etc.) to get through, but would stop spammers.

    Another thought: I saw a forum message that claimed that AT&T executives told him that there is a big push for customers to use "minutes". I have unlimited. Do many people still use "minutes? Anyway, robocalls that go to voicemail use "minutes" and a lot of them. 10 robocalls a day, about 2 minutes per day, times 30 days equals 60 minutes per month. If true, this is certainly evil and affects ALL users, because of the robocalls.

    Another thought: If you have answered some of these calls, have you ever wondered why they first ask "Can you hear me"? When you answer "Yes", they somehow save and use your "Yes" answer to validate using your number, as in "Can we call you in the future?", "Yes". "Can we sell you number to call lists", "Yes". If this is true, it is extremely fraudulent, but, if outside the USA (see below), hard to prevent.

    Last thought: The "DoNotCall" list is only good for spammers in the USA. The marketing spammers have created companies outside of the USA and are exempt from the DoNotCall list.