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robocall

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A robocall is an automated telephone call initiated by a computer program called an autodialer or predictive dialer. Once a connection has been established, the programming delivers a prerecorded message. Robocalls are often used for appointment reminders, public-service announcements and crisis communication updates.

Because telemarketers have abused the technology to deliver unwanted and frequently deceptive messages, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has prohibited robocalls unless the recipient has given their written permission. To get around this requirement, scammers spoof caller ID, hoping the recipient will pick up because the phone number or area code looks familiar.  

In recent months, the FTC has taken steps to stop caller ID spoofing by going after those voice over IP (VoIP) services whose lax oversight has allowed scammers to make illegal robocalls. Last week, for example, the FTC sent warning letters to nine service providers whose VoIP customers are alleged to have conducted illegal robocall campaigns pretending to be public service calls about COVID-19. 

STIR-SHAKEN, a joint effort by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), is another initiative aimed at protecting consumers from spoofed robocalls. STIR-SHAKEN is a standards-based initiative that will enable phone companies to verify the accuracy of caller ID information.

Although robocalls are subject to restrictions of the Do Not Call Registry, caller ID spoofing has made the registry ineffective. To prevent being scammed by a robocall, the FCC recommends that consumers avoid answering calls from unknown numbers. Should you be fooled by caller ID spoofing, simply hang up. If the prerecorded message suggests the call recipient opt out of future calls by entering a specific digit on the phone's keypad, it is likely to result in more calls. As of this writing, the most effective deterrent to receiving undesired robocalls is to download a mobile call-blocking app or use the VoIP providers' call-blocking option. 

This was last updated in February 2014

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