Phone companies get new tools to block spam calls

A call log on a snartphone.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

Phone companies will have greater authority to block unwanted calls from reaching customers, since regulators adopted new rules to combat automated messages known as robocalls.

Rules adopted Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission represent the latest tools against robocalls, which pester people, sometimes multiple times each day, and often push scams. The FCC, which regulates the country’s phone, broadcast TV and internet services, also hopes that recent big fines will help deter scammers.

Phone companies already can block some calls that trick consumers by showing up on Caller ID with fake numbers. The new rules make clear that they can block additional calls that are likely scams, such as numbers that start with a 911 area code or that aren’t currently assigned to anyone.

The changes won’t stop robocalls completely, though experts say these steps are a good start.


Why is this happening?

The federal and state “Do Not Call” lists are supposed to protect people from unwanted calls from telemarketers. But scammers don’t care about breaking the law.

Scammers reach people cheaply and easily using autodialers, which spew out a large number of calls automatically. It’s estimated that Americans receive tens of millions of robocalls every day. Not all of them are fraudsters, of course. Pharmacies send automated messages about prescriptions being filled, for example. But too often, calls much such claims as you owe the IRS money, Microsoft is on the line to fix your computer or you’ve won a free cruise.

Spam callers have tricky technology that alters what pops up on a phone’s caller ID to a local number, or one from an official organization, so you’re more likely to pick up.

Help from the government

The steps the FCC took Thursday lets carriers crack down on these spoofed numbers. If successful, that would make running a scam more difficult and save U.S. consumers millions of dollars, a group of state attorneys general said in an FCC filing.


Experts have said these are solid developments but won’t protect people from all unwanted calls. Not every such call is from a spoofed number. Debt collectors and political campaigns are not covered under the Do Not Call lists.

In the longer term, the FCC supports industry efforts to verify that callers are who they say they are. Perhaps one day, you’ll see a green checkmark on your smartphone when the caller is legitimate. U.S. Telecom, the phone-company lobby, has said that rolling this feature out could take a few years but would prove powerful against robocallers.

The FCC has also sought ways to stop annoying calls from dogging people who change numbers. Today, if you sign up for Do Not Call but then get a new number, a marketer could pester you on your new line.

What phone companies are doing

Phone companies, cellphone makers and independent apps can screen or block unwanted calls by checking them against databases of known problem numbers and analyzing suspicious behavior, like a number that’s calling lots of people on Do Not Call lists.


Some of the carriers’ tools cost extra, and they’re not available for all phones and all plans. Consumers Union wants phone companies to make call-blocking tools available to all consumers free of charge.

For home phones, apps including YouMail and Nomorobo offer relief for free, but they have some limitations. You can also buy gadgets, some pretty clunky, that block calls on home phones.

What can you do?

Robocallers and spammers will still try to find ways to reach their victims. But there are common-sense measures to follow.

• Don’t answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number. (Yes, this is impractical on business phone lines.)


• Hang up on unwanted callers. Don’t talk to them or press any buttons. If you engage with them, they might flag you as someone who’s responsive and inundate you with more calls. Block the number after the call, if possible.

• Don’t give callers personal information, such as bank account or Social Security numbers.

• Use call-blocking apps. If you have privacy concerns, check the app’s policy to see if it’s sharing your call or contacts data with marketers.