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 http://donotcall.gov. 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.

MORE: Best Smartphones

"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.

Best Android Antivirus Software