How to Stop Robocalls and Spam Calls for Good

Robocalls aren't just annoying—they can also seriously harm your finances. Here's how to get them out of your life once and for all.

Why do we get so many robocalls? “The short answer is that they work and they are very inexpensive,” explains Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Eliminating humans dialing phones means that marketers and scammers can reach millions of phones efficiently and cheaply.

“And they work for two reasons,” Galak explains. “First, they can separate the diligent consumers from the less diligent (aka suckers). If you pick up a robocall and talk to the automated system, the caller now knows that there is a human on the other end of the phone and can sell that information to others who might try and call with some kind of sales promotion or, far worse, call with a scam of some sort. The second reason is that they are a fast way to get information—and sometimes disinformation—out to many people quickly. This is particularly true for older demographics who tend to rely more on phone calls than other forms of communication like emails, text messages, or social media.”

Using a variety of schemes, a robocall operation that averages 10 to 15 million robocalls a day can earn a yearly profit of $200,000, says cybersecurity expert Julia Campbell. “If a robocall operation goes undetected for over a year, its profit can soar into the millions,” she adds.

Read on to find out how to put an end to these annoying and potentially harmful calls. Then learn about the other phone call scams that could steal your money.

Sign up on the Do Not Call Registry

“The first step in stopping robocalls if you’re in the U.S. is to use the FTC [Federal Trade Commission]’s solution and register your number with the Do Not Call Registry. You can call 1-888-382-1222 to register (just make sure you’re calling from the number you want to be added), or visit donotcall.gov and add each number manually.” —Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn Lawn Care. Before you sign up, though, here’s what you need to know about the National Do Not Call list.

Block numbers

“To get fewer robocalls, start blocking them on your phone. Most smartphones have a feature where you can click through in the settings and block calls from a number. Try doing this consistently for a week or two, and you should see a drop in the number of calls coming through.” —Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding

Stop answering the phone

“A good tip is to stop answering any unknown numbers. This way, your line won’t be seen as ‘active,’ and they will stop calling.” —Grant Aldrich, CEO of OnlineDegree.com. By the way, you should never call back an unknown number—here’s why.

Use robocall-blocking apps

“Two I’ve used with success have been Mr. Number and Hiya. Hiya comes with caller ID, custom blocking, and an automatic robocall blocker, but it also has a massive database of user-reported robocalls in addition to the FTC list, making it very comprehensive. I’d definitely recommend it as a way to cut down on the number of robocalls that plague you. It won’t avoid them entirely, but the app will block the ringer and inform you that it was spam.” —Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review

Set your phone to Do Not Disturb

“Activate the Do Not Disturb setting on your mobile device. This will prevent any incoming unknown number from reaching you and allow you to customize which calls you want to receive.” —Julia Campbell, cybersecurity expert

Ask your wireless carrier for help

“Verizon has implemented new services to help its customers avoid illegal robocalls. The new Call Filter service offers spam alerts and new protections from robocalls for its wireless customers. Samsung’s SmartCall informs you if the call you are receiving is from a known robocaller. Google also has a spam blocker that will warn you when you are receiving a robocall and your screen will turn red.” —Steven J.J. Weisman, identity theft and cybersecurity expert. While you’re checking out your wireless account, make sure your cell phone company isn’t overcharging you.

Don’t answer questions

“Often, scam robocalls hope to create a sense of urgency and fear. Examples include pretending you owe the IRS and you’ll be arrested if you don’t settle your debt, or pretending to be your bank warning you about fraud so that you’ll provide your card info in order to stop the fraud. If you think you’ve received a call about a legitimate issue, hang up and research the company, organization, or individual’s official number, then call that number yourself and ask about the issue mentioned on the initial call.” —Greg Mahnken, credit industry analyst at Credit Card Insider. And if you hear this question when you answer the phone, hang up immediately.

Send unknown calls to voicemail

“On iOS and Samsung devices, it’s possible to silence all unknown numbers, simply sending them to voicemail. This will allow you to ignore the robocalls while adding the important numbers to your contacts so you’ll receive their next call.” —Phil Strazzulla, CEO and founder of Select Software Reviews

Don’t be fooled by COVID-19 scams

“Nearly 5,000 coronavirus-related scams were reported to the FTC through May 18—costing Americans more than $35 million in losses to these frauds,” says digital expert Dave Dykes, representing research conducted by Transaction Network Services (TNS). Here are some of the most prevalent scams to be aware of, according to TNS:

  • Contact tracing scams: With states putting contact tracing initiatives into high gear, scammers are feasting on consumer fears by posing as public health workers via robocalls and robotexts to trick people into giving up personal information and money.

  • Stimulus checks: A new and sophisticated COVID-19 robotext scam lures smartphone users to a realistic-looking IRS web page, where they are prompted to answer personal information to receive their stimulus check. Once the victim enters all their information, they are then redirected to the real IRS website to make the scam look less suspicious.

  • Test kits, masks, and PPE: COVID-19 scams work because the products Americans want the most (test kits, masks, gloves) are in short supply and there is a lack of pricing clarity on what these items should cost. TNS’ analysis tracked a 3M scam circulating with tens of thousands of calls—primarily to Los Angeles phone numbers—offering a coronavirus safety and medical kit.

Next, find out which U.S. state gets more robocalls than any other.

Joe McKinley
Joe McKinley is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest, covering cars, careers, tech and more.