Dear Savvy Senior,
Is there anything that can be done to stop the annoying robocalls my husband and I keep getting? It seems like we get two or three a day offering lower credit card interest rates, medical alert devices, home alarm systems and more. What can you recommend?
-- Frustrated Seniors
There's been a huge spike in robocall scams in the U.S. over the past few years. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gets more then 200,000 complaints every month about this widespread problem. Here's what you should know, along with some tips that can help you protect yourself.
Whenever you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, it's a robocall.
You've probably gotten robocalls about candidates running for office or charities asking for donations. These robocalls are legal and allowed. But if the recording is a sales message and you haven't given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. In addition to the phone calls being illegal, their pitch most likely is a scam.
Some common robocall scams that are making the rounds these days are offering lower credit card interest rates, mortgage relief, free vacations, medical alert devices or home security systems, or they falsely notify you about changes in your health benefits or bank account. But be aware that new scams are constantly evolving, and they all have only one goal in mind -- to get your personal and financial information.
The reason for the spike in robocalls is technology. Fraudulent robocallers are using autodialers that can send out thousands of phone calls every minute for an incredibly low cost, and are very difficult to trace. When these kinds of calls come in, your caller ID usually displays "spoofed" (fake) numbers or just says "unknown."
Your first step to limiting at least some unwanted calls is to make sure your phone number is registered with the National Do Not Call Registry (see donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222). This, however, will not stop telemarketing scams or illegal robocalls.
Another tip, if you have a caller ID, is to simply not answer the phone unless you recognize the number. But if you do answer and it's a robocall, you should just hang up the phone. Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator and don't press any other number to complain about the call or get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, you're signaling that the autodialer has reached a live number and it will probably lead to more robocalls.
You should also consider contacting your phone provider to ask them to block the number, and whether they charge for that service. But keep in mind that telemarketers change caller ID information easily and often, so it might not be worth paying a fee to block a number that will change.
Another call blocking option you should check into is Nomorobo. This is a free new service and works only for people who have an Internet-based VoIP phone service. Anyone with phone service from Comcast and Time Warner Cable can use it too. Nomorobo uses a "simultaneous ring" service that detects and blocks robocalls on a black list of known offender numbers. It isn't 100 percent foolproof, but it is an extra layer of protection. To sign up, or see if Nomorobo works with your phone service provider, visit Nomorobo.com.
It's also important that you report illegal robocalls you receive to the FTC at ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call 888-382-1222.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.