Scarsdale residents often contact local police to report phone scams or unwanted calls, including robocalls, which are defined as telephone calls from an automated source that deliver a prerecorded message to a large number of people, many of whom may not know what’s real and what is fake, or what to do if they have been called.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines robocalls as unwanted prerecorded or artificial voice messages to a landline specifically for telemarketing purposes. On a wireless phone, it doesn't matter if it's a sales call or not — it's considered to be a robocall if the call comes in via an autodialer that’s being used to make the same call quickly to multiple numbers.
Such calls are illegal if the caller did not agree to be called.
On the national level, the No. 1 consumer complaint fielded by the FCC is robocalls, and official estimates indicate about half of all calls are likely to be spam by the end of this year. YouMail, a California call-blocking company, found that an estimated 4.7 billion robocalls were placed to U.S. phone numbers in May 2019 alone. Even though robocalls became illegal in 2009, the amount of robocalls to Americans has been in a steady upward trend since 2016. New York City’s 917 area code made up 45.9 million of the 24.9 billion robocalls made in the first five months of 2019, according to YouMail’s robocall index.
One common phone scam tactic is the scammer pretending to be connected with the government or law enforcement and using a distracting story, such as winning money or something that instills fear, such as a threat to arrest or sue the person or a relative. That type of message typically attempts to convince the call recipient he or she won the lottery or owes a fake debt.
In terms of the lottery, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that if the National Consumer Protection Agency is mentioned, then it’s a fake call, since no organization of that name exists. Fake debt collectors may say they are with the FTC, the IRS or a sheriff’s office. If a person is unsure whether the debt collector is real or fake, the FTC recommends “[looking] up the official number for the government agency, office or employee (yes, even judges) and call to get the real story.”
While the FCC and phone companies are working to block robocalls, it can still be hard for people to distinguish a legitimate phone call from a fake one, since many robocalls use a familiar area code.
One way citizens are combating this issue is by making use of the Do Not Call Registry. People can register their landlines or cell phones for free online at donotcall.gov. The Do Not Call list cannot and does not block calls. Rather, the list stops calls from legitimate companies, which must remove your number from their telemarketing lists within 31 days. According to the FTC website, a Do Not Call registration will never expire, but the FTC will remove the number from the registry if it’s disconnected and reassigned, or if you ask to remove it.
Other types of organizations, such as charities, political groups, debt collectors and surveys, may still call.
The list also can’t stop calls from scammers who ignore it. Anyone who gets an unwanted robocall should hang up and file a complaint with the FTC. According to the FTC website, “Companies that illegally call numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry or place an illegal robocall can be fined up to $42,530 per call.”
Scammers usually don’t care about the Do Not Call registry, so the next best step to get rid of unwanted calls is Call Blocking — a feature on some smartphones that blocks calls when activated. Some phone service carriers may also offer ways to help, but on a phone–to-phone basis, so there’s no universal call-blocking feature. Some cellphones may need a call-blocking app — some are free, but others may require a monthly fee. The call-blocking app acts like a filter, using call data and reports to see which calls may be illegal and which calls are legitimate. These apps can let the user block calls based on the location or area code of the call and create blacklists of numbers to block, or white lists of numbers to let through. For landlines, there are devices that work similarly to the apps.
If a person happens to pick up a robocall by mistake, and they can tell right away that it’s an automatic message and not a real person, the best thing to do is to hang up immediately. The FTC advised against pressing a number if asked to do so, since it could lead to more robocalls.
The robocalls restriction also does not apply to informational messages, political calls or calls from charities. If at any point the message is trying to sell something, however, it becomes illegal and should be reported to the FTC.
Some of the top FCC tips about keeping callers safe when dealing with a robocall include not responding to any questions, especially those that can be answered with "Yes,” and never giving out account numbers, Social Security numbers, a mother's maiden name, passwords or other identifying information. People should never press buttons during a robocall, even if the message says doing so will stop the calls. That ruse is instead used to target people.
While scammers don’t usually discriminate on the basis of race, location, gender or education, the FTC has found that older people are targeted more often. This can be for a host of reasons, including the older person being more likely to live alone, have a nest egg or be more polite toward strangers.
Congressman Eliot L. Engel, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, co-sponsored the Regulatory Oversight Barring Obnoxious — or ROBO — Calls and Texts Act. This act would create a new division in the FCC to ensure customer protection against robocalls and would make carriers adopt standards to prevent robocalls. Engel also co-sponsored a Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones — or ROBOCOP — Act, which would require phone companies to provide customers with free tools to block robocalls.
“Robocalls on our cellphones are out of control, and I’m committed to giving federal agencies the authority and tools they need to rein in the problem,” Engel said in a press release. “I’m determined to help make life more pleasant for my constituents and for all Americans, and to protect the most vulnerable among us from abusive robocalls and robocall scams.”
Stop unwanted sales calls
- · To put your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry, go to donotcall.gov or call 1-888-382-1222 (voice) or 1-866-290-4236 (TTY).
- · To file a complaint online, go to complaints.donotcall.gov or ftc.gov/complaint.
- · To phone in a complaint, call 1-888-382-1222 or 1-877-FTC-HELP.
- · For info about call-blocking apps for mobile phones, go to ctia.org.
- · For more resources, go to fcc.gov and search “stop robocalls.”