It happens every day. Maybe several times a day. The phone rings, you answer, and a recorded voice tries to sell you a vacation in the Caribbean or a fast track out of debt.
Sometimes you answer and no one responds. Either way, you get angry.
These marketing calls used to be made by human beings who could make dozens of calls a day. Now they are made by computers with recorded messages, and they are capable of making millions of calls a day. Cheaply.
They are robocalls. They are annoying. They waste time and tie up phone lines. In most cases, they are illegal.
Do Not Call
The National Do Not Call Registry was created in 2003 to stop these unwanted calls. It seemed to work well for a few years. However, by 2010, technological advances made it simple for disreputable companies to send their calls at any time from any place in the world, making it nearly impossible to track them down.
Like drug dealers or other criminals, robocallers dealing in scams often use prepaid cell phones. They use them for a brief period of time, then throw them away, according to the Federal Trade Commission, adding to the difficulty for law enforcement officers.
To make it more difficult, robocallers started using a technique called "spoofing" which makes it look like they are a bank, credit card company, or other institution on the called ID, reported the Better Business Bureau. Then the robocallers stepped it up a notch and started using "neighborhood spoofing," making it appear like the call was coming from the recipient's own area code or town.
All of those methods are designed to get you to answer the phone and push a button, engage in a conversation, or otherwise get pulled into the scheme.
What about that call where no one responds when you answer? That call lets the caller know that the number is live and will be answered, and what time it was answered. Those are bits of information that can sold to other robocallers, said the Better Business Bureau.
Calls and complaints
In the past, our landlines stayed at home, and when we left the house, we were out of the reach of telemarketers. Now, our cellphones go everywhere with us and so do the robocallers. That only increases our frustrations with these intrusions.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 3 million complaints. In response, the agency filed more than 100 lawsuits against over 600 companies who placed billions of calls. The FTC reports that robocaller scams cost consumers $350 million each year.
YouMail, a company which provides a robocall blocker and gathers information about robocalls from users of the service, reported that 16.3 billion robocalls have been placed nationwide in the first five months of 2018.
A few robocalls are legitimate and legal, especially if they contain emergency information such as school closures, flight cancellations or fraud alert from a credit card company. These calls must identify who is initiating the call and provide an "Opt-in" consent method before presenting the information.
If you have not given consent and the call is not for emergency information, the call is illegal, according to the Better Business Bureau, even if it is from a legitimate company doing legal business. If these calls fail to identify the company making the call, or if they demand immediate payment or payment in a special form, they should be considered scams.
For example, no robocall from the IRS is legitimate. According to the IRS, they will not ask for payment without sending you a bill first. They will not ask for credit card or bank numbers over the phone, and they will not threaten to send police to arrest you.
Stopping the calls
In theory, the Do Not Call Registry should stop these calls, but the New York Times said using the registry to stop robocalls "resembles a tennis net trying to stop a flood." If companies and individuals are using the phone to commit fraud or manage a scam, they are not going to take the time to check the Do Not Call Registry.
Even with that bleak picture, most knowledgeable sources recommend signing on to the Do Not Call Registry, because it will at least stop those companies that pay attention to the law. To sign up, you must call the registry at 1-888-382-1222 from the same number you wish to register. You may also register online at donotcall.gov.
The Better Business Bureau recommends not answering calls from any unknown number. They report that "People who need to speak to you will leave a message."
Be aware of caller ID spoofing and avoid the temptation to answer a call, even from your own town or prefix, unless you know the number.
If you realize you have answered a robocall, the FTC recommends that you do not interact with the caller. Do not press any buttons even if they say it will remove you from a call list. Hang up immediately.
If robocalls become frequent, the Better Business Bureau recommends talking to your phone company about services they may have, or consider signing up for one of the many roboblocker apps that can be installed on your cell phone.
You may file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by calling 877-382-4357 or going to their web site at www.consumer.ftc.gov.
You may report caller ID spoofing to the Federal Communications Commission at 888-225-5322 or visit their web site at www.fcc.gov.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited YouMail as YouMail Robocall Index; Robocall Index is YouMail's monthly robocall volume report.