How to block spam texts and robocalls for good

Robocalls are out of control despite the best efforts of commercial firms and government agencies. Here are some steps you can take to thwart them.

The first time the call came through, my Robokiller app successfully intercepted and squelched it. The second time I was too fast. The caller ID said it was a healthcare organization, so I thought perhaps it was legit. I should know better by now.

Unfortunately, it was just another one of the dozens of online pharmacies that have been hounding me for a decade.

Americans received 24 billion of those nuisance calls in the first half of this year, according to Atlas VPN.

Although that's down 5% from the same period last year, it's still astronomically high.

Robocalls are so common that they're changing our behavior on a massive scale. For example, Hiya, which makes call screening software, says 79% of unidentified calls go unanswered, even though we can presume that at least some of them are legitimate.

Is there any relief in sight?

Back in June, I outlined some steps you can take to avoid text scams. This week I'll look at how technology is being brought to bear on the problem.

Next week I'll address the growing problem of robotic calls into businesses, which makes it impossible to simply ignore them.

Get registered

For starters, registering your number with the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry is worth it. This act removes you from most legitimate telemarketing lists, but it won't deter the nuisance calls.

"Scammers are already willing to break the law by stealing your information, so they don't care if your number is listed or not," says Dimitri Shelest, founder of OneRep. This company automates the removal of unauthorized private listings from the web.

Every major mobile telecom provider offers some kind of free robocall blocking protection. For example, AT&T's Active Armor protects against both malicious calls and suspicious activity on your home network. Verizon's Call Filter runs on most Android devices and provides spam detection and filtering, call logging for blocked or spam calls, and the option to report suspicious numbers.

T-Mobile's ScamShield is the best of the bunch, according to Shelest." It includes some advanced security options, such as letting you change your number for free once a year and giving you a proxy number when you don't want to give out your real number," he says.

Mobile phones also come with built-in protection settings.

For example, the "Silence Unknown Callers" feature on the Apple iPhone blocks numbers that aren't in your contact list. The same capability exists in the default phone app on most Android devices.

Extra protection

Several independent services provide additional levels of protection, including Hiya, Robokiller, CallControl, Firewall, and Truecaller. All have free and paid versions and work the same way. They use a database of known scammers and harvest customer feedback to identify new bad actors.

These companies have come up with some sophisticated ways to automate the process.

For example, Robokiller automatically forwards declined calls to a number where the source and time of day can be compared to other unanswered calls. Then, it identifies patterns indicative of robocallers. "Small signals can tell us a lot," says Matthew Mizenko, a senior vice president at RoboKiller Enterprise.

Each service also has its bells and whistles.

For example, Truecaller color-codes incoming calls to flag known scammers, verify callers, and even highlight high-priority calls. In addition, Robokiller has an excellent feature called Answer Bots that engages callers in an assortment of prerecorded conversations designed to waste their time and enrage them.

Some are hilarious.

To block callers to a landline, Nomorobo "is consistently considered one of the best apps to stop robocall," Shelest said.

Another good free option is YouMail.

Use in combination

By employing a combination of measures, you can block nearly all robocalls.

I've been using the premium version of RoboKiller for a couple of months and found that spam calls and texts have all but ceased. The product occasionally intercepts legitimate calls but lets them through quickly enough. Not a single spam text has gotten through, and the built-in voice mail ensures that legitimate callers can still leave a message.

Scrub yourself from the web

A more permanent solution is to remove yourself from the hundreds of people-search sites such as Spokeo, FastPeopleSearch, PeekYou, LocatePeople, and MyLife.

These operators harvest an incredible amount of personal information from various sources and sell them to legitimate marketers and scammers. Their business is entirely legal (at least for now).

"Even seemingly innocuous information can be leveraged by scammers to gain more sensitive information," Shelest says. "Having your phone number included on your profile is almost guaranteed [to land you on robocall lists] since this information is so easy to find."

OneRep is one of several services that remove your information from such sites for a fee, starting at $100 annually in OneRep's case. Similar services include DeleteMe and Kanary.

The cost isn't trivial, but given that the only alternative is to remove your information from each source individually, it may be well worth the money.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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