If there’s one thing people with iPhones and Android phones can agree on, it’s this: Robocalls suck.
Personally speaking, robots call me more than my own mother does. A very concerned “Cynthia Arnold” gets in touch every week or so “in reference to your federal student loan,” claiming she needs to discuss “repayment options with some new changes that have taken effect.” (I don’t have any federal student loans.) And then there’s “Rich,” a huffy gentleman who says he’s calling me back regarding “the information that we spoke about, about bringing in $10,000 or more every 10 to 14 days.” I wonder if I should introduce him to that down-and-out Nigerian prince in my inbox.
Despite me blocking them every time they call, Cynthia, Rich, and other prerecorded pests have continued to contact me from new numbers, sometimes with local area codes as a way of coaxing me to pick up the phone. (The Better Business Bureau calls this tactic “neighbor spoofing.”) They used to be more irritating than anything, but they seem to be getting more and more aggressive over time.
Unwanted robocalls like these are annoying autodialers at best and illegal scams at worst, and they’re part of an ongoing problem the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to crack down on for years. One report conducted by the visual voicemail and robocall blocking software company YouMail estimates that about 50.5 billion robocalls were placed to U.S. consumers in 2021, which worked out to about 200 robocalls for every adult with a phone throughout the year.
That’s down from a pre-pandemic peak of 58 billion robocalls placed in 2019 thanks to recent FCC enforcement actions, but still enough to make them the agency’s single largest source of consumer complaints and No. 1 consumer protection priority, according to its latest Call Blocking Report.
You may think you’d be savvy enough to know whether someone trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty is a scammer. But as robocalls have increased in frequency over the past few years, they’ve gotten more convincing, too. (The FCC says car warranty robocalls will often name-drop specific details about your vehicle and policy that make them seem more legit, for example.) Almost one in three Americans fell prey to phone scams last year, and about one in five were swindled multiple times, according to a study conducted by the robocall blocking app Truecaller. The same research estimated an average loss of $502 per victim, up from $351 the year prior.
What is the best way to stop robocalls?
The FCC has promised to go scorched-earth on this “scourge of illegal robocalls,” which has lately included cease-and-desists to voice service providers, hundreds of millions of dollars in fines against telemarketers, investigation partnerships with 22 states, standards for so-called gateway providers that allow international calls into the U.S., establishing a Robocall Mitigation Database, and the implementation of STIR/SHAKEN, a protocol that helps phone companies authenticate caller ID info.
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has also proposed new rules that would force mobile carriers to block illegal automated text messages, or robotexts, one of the “latest scamming trends” the agency has on its radar.
But federal efforts alone won’t be the answer to all of our robocall woes. “Advances in technology have unfortunately allowed illegal and spoofed robocalls to be made from anywhere in the world and more cheaply and easily than ever before,” the FCC concedes. “That’s why it’s become more of a problem for consumers, and a more difficult problem to solve.” Bad actors’ constant rule-skirting has created an infinite game of whack-a-mole.
There’s also the issue that many robocalls you get are, in fact, legal, and maybe even wanted — think appointment reminders and emergency alerts. (A robocall’s legality depends on several factors, including the technology used to make it, whether it’s to a landline or mobile number, and whether it’s from a telemarketer who’s gotten your consent.) Weeding out illegal calls in real time without blocking lawful calls is the “most complex part” of the agency’s robocall smackdown, it says.
So where does that leave consumers? Along with ignoring calls from unknown or unfamiliar numbers (then blocking them) and listing your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry, the FCC endorses the use of robocall blocking technology.
Many major phone carriers offer apps for dealing with unwanted calls (ex: AT&T’s ActiveArmor, Verizon’s Call Filter, and T-Mobile’s Scam Shield), so check with yours to see what’s available. Phone manufacturers like Apple and Google offer opt-in silencing services that prevent unknown numbers’ calls from ringing, too. But if you don’t think those tools are powerful enough — most don’t actually stop robocalls; they just identify their sources or send them directly to voicemail — you’ve also got the option of downloading a robocall blocking app that’s purpose-built to stop scammers in their tracks.
What’s the best robocall blocker app?
First, some important fine print about these third-party solutions. The pros: Upfront costs for your average call blocker app aren’t exorbitant, and most don’t require much storage space on your phone. Oftentimes, you won’t even be able to tell the app’s there. (Some of them are capable of screening and blocking unwanted calls before a user’s phone even rings.)
But as former Mashable tech reporter Ray Wong reported, that convenience comes at a cost:
“According to TechCrunch and Dan Hastings, a security researcher at NCC Group, many top robocall blocking apps share your phone number with analytics firms and [upload] device information such as device type and software version to companies like Facebook without your explicit consent.”
To further quote Wong: “Yikes!”
Not every robocall blocking app is an offender, mind you. But even if the one you use doesn’t share or sell your data under the table, it probably still collects it. (Many apps rely on a crowdsourced database of numbers to cross-check anonymous callers with already-identified culprits, and those numbers have to come from somewhere — i.e., users’ contacts lists.) It’s safe to assume, then, that when you’re using a third-party blocker app, you’re putting personal information like your name, your IP address, and/or your smartphone’s name, model, and operating system up for grabs.
Here are seven robocall blocking apps and tools that we recommend looking into based on their features and user ratings.
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