It’s not much of a stretch to describe robocalls as 2019’s No. 1 tech problem.
“We get calls in the middle of the night,” writes Shulamit Elson in New York City. They appear to come from Slovenia and Kazakhstan and ring once before hanging up.
I hear you. I’ve gotten dozens of questions about this from readers.
Robocalls are certainly a nuisance to home phones as they are on smartphones, but the tech to stop them isn’t as advanced. Some providers, such as Verizon, label suspected spam calls on a phone’s caller-ID screen or let you block individually annoying numbers, but most home phones don’t have access to apps that can be the brains of the operation. Landlines also run on diverse technology: Most Americans who still have a home phone use VoIP (voice-over-internet) service, but 11 percent of homes still get service from old copper wire tech, according to U.S. Telecom, an industry trade group.
For most people, I recommend starting with a service called Nomorobo. It also sells a $2 per month smartphone app, but its roots are in landlines, where it is free.
Nomorobo does not work with copper-based phone lines. But it does work with dozens of VoIP carriers, including AT&T U-verse, Verizon Fios, Comcast Xfinity and Cox. I haven’t tested it myself, but I know happy customers and have interviewed the company about its data practices and business. The company won a robocaller-tech contest run by the Federal Trade Commission a few years ago.
It works using a system called “simultaneous ring,” which makes incoming calls to you also go to Nomorobo. If Nomorobo picks up first, its system tries to determine if it’s a robocaller. If it is, your phone won’t ring after that first time — and you’ll know it squashed some spam.
If it’s a legitimate call, they’ll patch it on through to you. You just have to remember to wait for the second ring.
How does Nomorobo determine if it should hang up? It keeps a constantly updated database of about a million numbers with its own “honey pot” of phone lines that get lots of robocalls and crowdsourced reports from its users. In my tests of its smartphone app, Nomorobo wasn’t as fast at identifying the bad guys as some competitors. But it was pretty good about not blocking legitimate robocalls, such as from a pharmacy or school.
One thing to know: The product is free and that means it wants something from you. Nomorobo takes the data it gathers from landlines and uses it to figure out who to block from its paying smartphone customers. Nomorobo says it doesn’t sell that data and uses it only to combat robocallers, so it’s a decent exchange.
What if you have a copper phone line? Those require physical hardware you attach to your phone that screens out a list of known bad numbers. The problem is, the numbers scammers use change frequently. I haven’t tested these devices, but ones such as the $100 CPR Call Blocker V5000 only come preloaded with 5000 numbers — a drop in the bucket for the 2019 robocall epidemic.
Beware of devices or service that rely on you to manually block numbers as robocalls come in. The robocallers might be spoofing legitimate numbers you might not want blocked some day, such as tech support or government agencies.
Washington Post readers have been sharing a few other interesting solutions. “I formatted my home phone to ring only twice so when the computer or whomever, hears my message, quickly hangs up and leaves no message,” writes Judith Nathan of Leominster, Mass.
James Fullerton of Leesburg, Va., writes he doesn’t get robocalls on his business line because he uses an “interactive voice response” system, also known as phone tree. “Robocallers simply can’t decipher the greeting, hear the list of options/extensions, and therefore the IVR blocks 100 percent of robocalls with no further intervention required,” he says. “The drawback is that the setup is somewhat complex.”
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