"Call me, maybe?” is on the brink of becoming “Call me, never.”
Robocalls, those computer-generated shysters, are making some people stop answering the phone altogether. The rest of us trust unknown calls about as much as truck stop sushi. By several estimates, Americans got more than 5.2 billion automated calls in March — a record of about 16 for every man, woman and child.
It’s happening because the internet made it incredibly cheap and easy to place thousands of calls in an instant. But we don’t have to just bury our heads in the spam and take it. While lawmakers debate what to do about the roboscourge, engineers have cooked up some clever ways to make bots work for us, not against us. Verizon just began offering free spam-fighting tech like AT&T and T-Mobile, if you sign up. The right app or service on your phone can make it safer to say hello again — or even exact revenge.
So let’s battle, bots. I collected dozens of robocalls from my Washington Post colleagues along with the (good grief) 30 I got myself in March. I get lots in Chinese; one colleague gets one for a “medical-grade brace” that he definitely doesn’t need. Then I took this list of 100 naughty numbers — and a few legitimate calls like pharmacies and schools — to six tech companies that flag and block robocalls on cellphones.
It comes down to how much effort you want to put into battling robocalls, and how much personal information you’re willing to share to make it happen. Just adding numbers to your phone’s individual block list won’t get you very far, but there are a few simple steps everyone could benefit from. Here’s my recommended plan of attack.
Round 1: Register on the ‘Do Not Call’ list
It won’t help much, but it only takes 30 seconds so why not? The list, kept by the Federal Trade Commission, tells legitimate telemarketers not to bother you — the equivalent of a “no trespassing” sign on your lawn. Bonus: It also registers with the government that you care about this issue. It’s free to register at donotcall.gov.
Round 2: Activate your service provider’s free protection
Phone companies have finally realized that stopping robocalls is an essential part of what we pay them for.
You may have heard that recently the biggest carriers pledged to support new network technology with a James Bond name — STIR/SHAKEN — that will help identify the true origin of calls. That’s a good thing to help stop all those spoofed calls, but there’s still a lot to work out before it might make a noticeable difference.
Meanwhile, everyone should take advantage of tech the carriers offer to identify and block certain robocalls. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon offer free services that monitor network activity and crowdsourced reports to block suspected fraudulent calls. The carriers outsource these services to Hiya, First Orion and TNS, respectively.
Don’t worry: They cross-check your contacts list to make sure they don’t block someone legitimate. One caveat: If your company pays for your phone service, it might have to authorize turning on some of these services.
Round 3: Get a robocall-blocking app
Independent apps offer a few tricks of their own, but they’re not all effective and might be after the personal data in your phone.
I recommend starting with the free YouMail, which won my robocall speed test. The main reason it’s faster is that it has data the carrier-provided services don’t: the contents of your voicemail. YouMail replaces your phone’s existing voicemail service, and it uses software to identify when robocallers leave messages — like Shazam for spam. That helps it quickly crowdsource the identity of new robocallers and block them from other phones.
If YouMail, which has about 10 million registered users, sees a scam rotating through lots of different spoofed numbers, it knows not to block those numbers that belong to legitimate callers for all its users. A coming update will also let you automatically block spoof calls designed to look like they’re coming from neighbors.
And my favorite part: YouMail tries to trick known robocallers into taking you off their lists by playing them the beep-beep-beep sound of a dead line.
If you don’t want to give up your voicemail, the most-effective option is Truecaller, which replaces your phone’s main call app and crowdsources spam numbers from some 300 million users worldwide (including 10 million in the U.S.). But it wasn’t my favorite app, because you have to pay $3 per month to automatically block top spammers, and it stuffs in lots of functions unrelated to robocalling.
The simplest app, $2 per month Nomorobo, is one of the first robocall blockers on the market with a popular service for home lines. On your smartphone, Nomorobo doesn’t sell your data or monkey around with your voicemail or calling apps, and it is smart about blocking spoofed calls that appear to be from neighbors. But I also found it was the slowest to add my test’s robocalls to its blacklist.
Round 4: Get revenge
For some, dark times call for dark measures. The $4 per month RoboKiller, which ranked second in my speed test, also takes over and fingerprints your voicemails but adds a clever twist: “answer bots.” They’re voicemail messages that try to keep robots and human telemarketers on the line, listening to nonsense.
Answer bot options range from Trump impersonators and extended coughing sessions to someone doing vocal exercises. Even better, RoboKiller will send you an often-hilarious recording of the interaction. Any time robocallers spend with your bot might be minutes they’re not calling someone else, so you can think of it as community service.
I expect we’ll see more call software that works like this. Even if you’re not interested in revenge, good bots can play a role in combating bad ones.
Geoffrey A. Fowler is a columnist with The Washington Post.