We’ve all been there—that annoying phone call during dinner selling solar panels, the scary scam phone message telling you you’re about to be arrested for unpaid taxes, and the persistent call from “tech support” telling you your computer is infected with a virus. Even worse is when those calls come to your mobile phone while you’re driving, in a restaurant, or with a client. And even worse than that is when they come to your small business line causing endless interruptions and lost productivity for you and your team.
If it seems like these calls are getting more persistent and more frequent, you’re not growing increasingly intolerant; you’re right. According to the YouMail Robocall Index, 1.3 billion robocalls were placed in the US in June 2015 and 2.5 billion calls placed in April, 2017—that’s almost double!
The Robocall Threat Landscape
These calls truly take all shapes and sizes, and range from annoying to scams to outright predatory attempts to steal your identity and your money. A study by anti-fraud company Pindrop, which sets up “honeypot” numbers to lure and observe robocallers, found that the most common types of call in the first half of 2016 were loan scams, free vacation scams, prize scams, and scams offering lower electric bills. In each of these cases, the goal is to extract personal information and/or financial account information that will enable the scammer to fraudulently charge the victim or worse to steal their identity. Two of the most common scams were aimed directly at small businesses:
- Google (Yahoo/Bing) business listing scam. In this scam the caller (who has no affiliation with Google or any other service) tells a small business owner that their listings are in peril of being removed from search results and offers to help prevent that for a fee. As there is nothing wrong, nothing happens, and the scammer gets a fee for doing nothing.
- Local map verification scam in which a small business owner is told that their company is required to verify an online maps listing. The scam caller demands personal and business information to continue the maps listing, but actually uses this information to take over financial and other accounts owned by the business.
Further, these calls are becoming even more profitable because robocallers no longer need real people to do most of the work—it is not until you are ready to disclose that detailed personal information that you are even connected to a real person. The robocalls are getting far more sophisticated—and robots can be programmed to not only to use real human-sounding voices that launch into a pre-recorded script, they can be programmed to logically respond to common questions and phrases from you. Listen to an example of such an exchange here, sign the Consumer’s Union petition to stop robocalling, and/or share your own robocall experiences on the same page.
And, these calls are more than simply an annoyance– they cost real people real money.
A 2015 study conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of call blocking service Truecaller found that Americans received on average 15.8 spam calls (cell and/or landline) per month and that 11% of American adults lost money as a result of a phone scam in the past year (vs 7% in the 2014 survey), and that these scams affected 27 million Americans and cost them an aggregate $7.4 billion (an average of $274/victim). Interestingly, the study found that of those who fell victim 74% were contacted on their mobile phones (up from 49% in 2014).
Government/Industry Action Against Robocalling
With such a huge portion of the US population affected, and with the problem growing to epidemic levels, you would think that there would be laws against this type of scam, and that phone companies would be able to easily block such calls before they even make it to victims. And while there are laws against robo and unsolicited calling to mobile numbers and against calling numbers on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) National Do Not Call Registry, there is not yet legislation that forces (or even enables) phone companies to automatically block numbers known to be used for illegal calling, or those using invalid or spoofed numbers. But, they are working on it.
On the industry side, many providers include call blocking functionality in their feature set—it is particularly common for mobile service and for home/office Voice over IP (VoIP) phone services. For traditional landlines, such offerings are fewer and farther between. In many cases this is not because the technology does not exist to block calls, but instead that these companies cannot legally unilaterally block numbers, but must instead wait for a specific block request from a customer.
To help the FCC adjust rules to the current climate, in October 2016, the Robocall Strike Force Report was issued. This report was a collaboration between major telephone and wireless providers along with other technology players to, “to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to abate the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls, to promote greater consumer control over the calls they wish to receive, and to make recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the role government can play in this battle.”
On May 17, 2017 the FCC issued a proposed rule: Advanced Methods To Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls, and opened it for comment. The rule would enable providers to, “block calls when the subscriber to a particular telephone number requests that calls originating from that number be blocked; permit providers to block calls originating from invalid numbers; permit providers to block calls originating from valid numbers that are not allocated to a voice service provider; and permit providers to block calls originating from valid numbers that are allocated but not assigned to a subscriber. In addition, the Commission seeks comment on the possibility of permitting providers to block calls in other situations where the calls to be blocked are reasonably likely to be illegal based upon objective criteria.” The comment period ends on July 3, 2017, and you can add your 2 cents here.
What Small Businesses Can Do to Combat Robocalls and Other Unwanted Telemarketing
While you are probably never going to completely block robocalls, telemarketing calls, and even sales cold calls, from ringing through to your small business (or your personal) phones, there are some basic steps you can take.
First, be sure that you have registered your numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry, and that when you do receive such calls you file complaints with the FCC (use this online form to do it). While you might think this is futile, the FCC will take steps to shut down these fraudsters if it gets enough complaints. In fact, the FCC website claims to have shut down “billons” of numbers originating fraudulent calls.
Your phone company will also block numbers for you. With VoIP service you typically have an online interface for blocking numbers that you can use for free. For those with traditional landlines, you’ll need to contact your phone company and request this service—which may come with a fee. (Note that the fee is likely not worth it, as scammers and robocallers change numbers more often than cashiers make change.)
Another option for traditional landlines is to use a phone that lets you block numbers on your end, and also automatically blocks calls where a number is not available for Caller ID. With these phones, once you block a number (or if none is available) it will no longer ring through to you and it will not be able to leave a message on your answering machine. There are a number of models offering this feature, however my personal favorite is from Panasonic: KX-TGE475S. I bought this system for my house, and between the automatic blocking and the numbers I have manually blocked, I’ve reduced the unwanted call volume by at least 75%.
If you have VoIP phone service you can use a free service like Nomorobo, which will not only block robocalls but when it intercepts one it plays a message indicating that your number has been disconnected. This will hopefully both take your number of the call list for that specific robocaller and propagate the disconnected message throughout the robocall network. (Yes—they share information about which numbers provide good targets and which ones are a waste of time, which is why you should just hang up immediately in the face of a robocall and never engage, speak, press a number, or otherwise let a robocaller know there is a live person on the phone.)
There are a number of Apps that perform a similar function for mobile phones. Nomorobo has a version for iPhone that costs $1.99/month. YouMail offers a free replacement for your mobile voicemail that will also play the not-in-service message to robocallers and any other number you want to block (think disgruntled ex-employee, overly persistent sales rep, etc.), along with other voicemail features.
If you don’t want to automatically block calls, but you want to know exactly who is calling you before you pick up, try the Trapcall service. Available for mobile only starting at $4.95/month, this app will pick up calls you decline and then ring them back to you with the real number displayed. They’ll even give you a big red warning if the number is on a known robocall or spam list. You can then decide to pick up, or blacklist the number and never hear from it again.
Blocking Beyond the Robocall (And Having Some Fun While You’re At It)
All of the services listed above assume you simply want to get rid of callers as quickly and easily as possible. But, such an expedient approach may not truly deter a scammer or a caller who really, really wants to get through to you or your small business.
Another approach is to sign-up for service from The Jolly Roger Telephone Company. This company takes the robocaller technology and turns it around on the scammers so that a computer Robot of your choice (you pick a “Pirate”—Salty Sally, Bloody Billy, Debbie Doldrums, and more) takes the call and uses logic to respond (sometimes quite absurdly) to the robocaller. This is funny if both sides are a robot, and far funnier if the caller is an actual person attempting to execute a scam. (It also seriously wastes a caller’s (robo or otherwise) time which both costs money and prevents the caller from using that time to victimize others, and perhaps even gets your number removed from call lists.)
The service works differently depending on the type of phone number to which you attach it. For traditional landlines you need to have conferencing or three-way calling enabled, and you can then conference in the “Pirate” of your choice to take the call. For those with VoIP service you can use the “Simultaneous Ring” feature to have your “Pirate” automatically take any calls it identifies as a robocall or that you manually blacklist. And for mobile phones, you can “Summon a Pirate” with a text when you get a call you don’t want to take. (Note that this service can eat up your minutes if you do not have an unlimited voice/text mobile plan.) The cost for the service itself is negligible– $6 per year for the landline/VoIP option and $8 for 200 minutes on the mobile plan.
There is even a Biz-Bot “Pirate” option for small businesses. For $39 for 1,000 calls you get a dedicated phone number to which you can transfer any call that you would like your “Pirate” to handle for you. (You could also give this number directly to people who pester you for a phone number, but to whom you really don’t want to speak.)
In all cases you get a full report of all numbers intercepted, and a recording of all calls the “Pirate” takes on your behalf. These reports will help you hone your blacklist and whitelist (or call back with an apology if the “Pirate” has mistakenly pranked a valid caller). They will also likely leave you rolling on the floor laughing. Listen to examples here.
And watch Jolly Roger founder Roger Anderson’s Ted Talk, Telephone spam/scam problem? Bring in the robots, below to learn about how and why he created this service and to hear it in action.