Help may be on the way to com­bat those robo­calls — even­tu­ally

Austin American-Statesman - - MONEY & MARKETS - By Tali Ar­bel

For Michael Rizzo, an­swer­ing the phone is too of­ten a waste of time.

His Sports City Pizza Pub in Buf­falo, New York, de­pends on cus­tomers call­ing to or­der wings, pizza and potato skins. But much of the time, it’s an au­to­mated mes­sage push­ing a scam. “It’s get­ting to the point where it’s block­ing other call­ers from com­ing in,” the 24-year-old bar owner said.

Help is com­ing, if slowly. Over the past year, prod­ded by the gov­ern­ment, cell­phones have added new tools to coun­ter­act unwanted “robo­calls.” The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion has pro­posed let­ting phone com­pa­nies block more spam and is hop­ing to de­ter scam­mers with big fines. Ex­perts say th­ese steps are not a cure-all, but they’re 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.

It’s es­ti­mated that Amer­i­cans re­ceive tens of mil­lions of robo­calls every day.

And spam call­ers have tricky tech­nol­ogy that makes a phone’s caller ID dis­play a lo­cal or im­por­tant-look­ing caller, like the IRS. Crack­ing down on “spoofed” num­bers 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.

What phone com­pa­nies are do­ing

Phone com­pa­nies and in­de­pen­dent apps can screen or block unwanted calls by check­ing them against data­bases of known prob­lem num­bers and an­a­lyz­ing sus­pi­cious be­hav­ior.

Wire­less car­ri­ers also have tools that flag in­com­ing calls with warn­ings like “scam likely,” but they aren’t avail­able on all phones. The ver­sions from Ver­i­zon and Sprint cost ex­tra. A few An­droid phones, in­clud­ing Google’s Pixel, screen spam calls for free.

Apps in­clud­ing YouMail and No­morobo offer re­lief on home phones for free, with lim­i­ta­tions. Ver­i­zon is also test­ing warn­ings about sus­pi­cious calls on a home phone’s caller ID dis­play.

Help from the gov­ern­ment

Phone com­pa­nies can al­ready block some calls that are be­ing faked. The FCC has pro­posed rules to for­mal­ize that prac­tice and per­mit them to block other calls they sus­pect are scams.

Mau­reen Ma­honey, a pub­lic pol­icy fel­low at the non­profit Con­sumers Union, said that won’t pro­tect con­sumers from all unwanted calls. “Do Not Call” lists don’t ap­ply to cer­tain types of call­ers, such as debt col­lec­tors and po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. In ad­di­tion, Ma­honey said, the FCC rules would cover only faked num­bers. Not all robo­calls are spoofed.

What can you do?

■ Don’t an­swer the phone if you don’t rec­og­nize the num­ber.

■ 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.

■ 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.

■ Don’t give call­ers per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.

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