Unwanted phone calls from marketers and scammers, including “robocalls” made by computers, are at an all-time high in the United States. The most recent statistics we have show that over 58 billion robocalls were made in 2019, up 22% from the year prior.
Chances are you’ve gotten unwanted calls of this nature. While they’re difficult to completely block and the laws against them have proven difficult to enforce, there are measures you can take to limit these kinds of unwanted calls.
Do Not Call lists: what you need to know
First, you should make sure your number is on the national “Do Not Call” registry. This list is maintained by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), and makes it unlawful for specific kinds of unsolicited calls to be made to numbers on the registry.
Some important things to know about the Do Not Call registry:
- The Do Not Call registry protects personal phone numbers, whether cellular or landline, but cannot be used to protect a business line from unsolicited calls.
- Once you register your number, it stays on the list until you remove it. There used to be a 5-year expiration, after which you would have to renew your number in the registry. This rule changed in 2007, so if you see references to renewing your number on the Do Not Call list after 5 years, you are probably seeing old information. If you change phone numbers, your old number will be removed from the list and you will need to add your new number. If your phone number is disconnected and then reconnected, there’s a chance you will have to re-register.
- There is no deadline to add your number, and no need to pay anyone to register for you. It is quick, free and easy to add your number yourself.
- The list doesn’t apply to everyone. Exempt from the Do Not Call Registry include:
- Political calls, such as campaign calls, “get out the vote” calls, or political polling.
- Calls from tax exempt nonprofits, schools, or other non-commercial entities.
- Businesses you’ve bought something from or made a payment to within the past 18 months.
- Calls made to collect debts.
- The registry takes effect one month after you add your number. So if you added your number to the Do Not Call list 31 days ago or more, you are protected.
- In some cases, callers who are exempt from the registry must honor your request that they stop calling you. If a charity calls for donations and you ask them to remove you from their call list, they must comply. The same is true of companies with which you’ve done business in the past 18 months.
How to get on the National Do Not Call Registry
Most states use the Federal Registry as their own do not call lists, and in a few cases, states have no do not call list of their own, so those residents must rely entirely on the national registry.
To register for the national Do Not Call list, visit donotcall.gov.
The Do Not Call List Number
To register by phone, you can call 1-888-382-1222 (toll-free) from the number you wish to add to the registry. But you should NOT do this if your number is already registered. Calling that hotline from a number that is already registered will remove you from the list.
You can find out if your number has already been registered by visiting donotcall.gov/verify.
How to get on State Do Not Call lists
A dozen states also maintain their own, state-level do not call lists. If you live in one of those states, you should add your number to the state list as well as the Federal registry:
- Colorado (CO) – find out more about “Colorado No-Call” from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission
- Florida (FL) – visit the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to learn more
- Indiana (IN) – register with the Indiana Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division
- Louisiana (LA) – visit the Louisiana Public Service Commission to learn more
- Massachusetts (MA) – learn more from the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation
- Mississippi (MS) – learn more about the state No Call Program from the Mississippi Public Service Commission
- Missouri (MO) – register for the No-Call List with the Missouri Attorney General
- Oklahoma (OK) – the Oklahoma Attorney General enforces the Oklahoma Telemarketer Restriction Act Consumer Registry
- Pennsylvania (PA) – learn more from the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate
- Tennessee (TN) – the state Do Not Call Program is run by the Tennessee Public Utility Commission
- Texas (TX) – visit the state Public Utilities Commission to learn more about “Texas No Call Lists”
- Wyoming (WY) – Wyoming relies on the Direct Marketing Association to set consumer telephone preferences; learn more from the Wyoming Attorney General
These states may have increased levels of protection for consumers than the Federal registry, so it’s important to sign up on both lists if you live in one of these 12 states.
What does the Do Not Call list actually do?
Unfortunately, the Do Not Call list works like any law—it stops law-abiding organizations from violating it. Scammers who are intent on breaking the law will ignore this registry, naturally.
The FTC has a Do Not Call list complaint process in place, and if they can identify the violator, they will fine the offending company, up to $42,530 per call made in violation of the list. Residents of the 12 states with state-specific do not call laws might also be able to get enforcement at the state level.
As we said, these threats do little to deter scammers, who hide their identities and assets to avoid paying fines. To date, the FTC has levied hundreds of millions of dollars in fines against companies who have violated the law, but has only managed to collect around $100 million of those penalties.
If enforcing the law is so difficult, what’s the point? That’s a great question; it’s worthwhile to sign up for the list, because that will deter salespeople from calling you if they work for a reputable company that doesn’t want to be fined. And more importantly, those who do persist and call you if you are on the list can automatically be dismissed as scammers.
If you tell a phone salesperson you are on the do not call list, they should fall all over themselves to apologize and ensure you are never called by that company again. A legitimate caller will not want to risk $40,000+ in fines from the FTC.
If the caller doesn’t care about your being on the Do Not Call registry, then you know without a doubt you’re talking to a scammer, and you should give them no information. Hang up on them and report the call to the FTC.
Remember, this is for sales calls only. If a call is informational, political or from a tax-exempt nonprofit, the Do Not Call list doesn’t necessarily apply.
But beware! Some companies will hire a 3rd party to make a compliant survey call, in which they will ask if they can reach out to you for further information. If you say yes, you may be agreeing to follow-up sales calls under the law. So in any unsolicited call, whether the Do Not Call rules apply or not, don’t agree to follow-up calls just to end the conversation.
It may seem futile, but please do report violators. The more complaints the FTC receives, the more effort (and budget) we can expect them to devote to the enforcement of the law. We’ve been told the FTC gets 19,000 complaints per day, which is massive, but well short of the billions of unsolicited calls made every year.
How to stop robocalls and autodialers
All of this information applies to unsolicited calls, whether they’re made by a human or a computer. But more rules do apply to so-called “robocalls”. These kinds of calls are almost always illegal.
Unless the computer call is from your kids’ school informing you about a snow day, or from your cable company confirming a service appointment, assume robocalls are some kind of scam and hang up.
With these kinds of calls, it’s difficult to report them to the FTC, since you usually won’t know where the call actually came from. The caller is likely “spoofing” some other legitimate number to trick you into picking up the phone. It doesn’t do much good to report a robocall when you don’t really know whom the call is from.
The best answer is to use technology to block unwanted calls. First, check with your phone service provider to see if they offer any services to help. T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular and AT&T have all already implemented technology to prevent unwanted calls, and other providers are sure to follow.
You can also try third-party apps and services that might help block fraudulent calls. The technology is ever-changing, so be sure to research and read a lot of reviews when finding the right solution for you. The FTC’s site on blocking unwanted calls is a great place to start.
As inadequate as it is, the Do Not Call Registry is still a welcome step toward bringing peace of mind to consumers inundated with unwanted calls, and gives us some outlet to push back against the scammers and unsolicited callers who have no respect for our time.
How to stop calls from debt collectors
If you’re getting calls from debt collectors, then understand that the Do Not Call list probably doesn’t apply.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) defines what debt collectors can and cannot do when they are collecting a debt. According to the FTC, “Debt collectors can’t contact you at inconvenient times or places. They can’t contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.” Although there are rules in place for debt collectors to abide by, these repeated calls can be annoying, to say the least.
If you’re struggling with past-due debts and are looking for ways to make the collection calls stop, reach out for free, nonprofit debt coaching, where an expert will review your situation and help you come up with a plan to become debt-free.