Stop the (SPAM) Madness + RoboKiller App

Does anyone else feel like spam phone calls and robocalls are OUT. OF. CONTROL?! They are like an unstoppable force that we’ve learned to live with because we have no freakin’ idea how to stop them. Telemarketer calls (especially calls to your cell phone), used to be only slightly annoying because they happened so infrequently. But fast-forward to today and I swear I get at LEAST one spam or robocall a day, usually more. It’s maddening. In fact, in the U.S. 5.3 billion robocalls were made in the month of November 2018 alone. That’s nearly 21 calls for every person (!)

And don’t get me started on the “spoofing” calls. You know, the kind where the call appears to be coming from a friendly “neighbor”. These calls come from phone numbers with your area code and usually even the same first three digits of your cell phone number, so it’s fair to assume that they are from actual people in your area that have dialed the wrong number by accident. These became incessant. I started to get 3-4 of those a day, and if I answered (to tell the person they had reached the wrong number), it was always a dead line. But then something interesting happened.

A couple of months ago I got a call from the same number 2-3 times in a 15 minute period. After the third call, I decided it might be important, so I texted the person to let them know they had dialed the wrong number. To my surprise, I actually got a text back from a real person telling me that MY phone number had been calling him repeatedly too and that he was actually calling me to tell me to stop calling HIM. Chew on that for a second. It definitely had me scratching my head. BOTH of our numbers were unknowingly being used to spoof other poor souls with similar phone numbers. Talk about a vicious cycle! And it has a name! This is what is called “neighbor spoofing”. By using a local number, spammers hope that you’ll be more likely to pick up the phone. And sadly they’re often right.

WHY, WHY, WHYYY?!

What I still couldn’t wrap my head around is WHY this is such an epidemic, and how these jerks make money. To continue making such high volumes of calls, they MUST be making money. And not just a little bit of it. Sure enough, I found a stat that said that each year spammers spend ~$440MM in overhead costs to bring in ~$9.5B in earnings. Yes, you read that right. They make THAT kind of money stealing from people over the phone.

That answered part of the “why” for me. If you could make that kind of money convincing people to give you their credit card or bank information over the phone, why would you stop? But what about when you don’t answer the phone? Well, apparently these spammers can STILL make money even if you don’t answer. It’s a little complicated, but relates to Caller ID databases. When an unknown number calls your phone, your phone company/mobile carrier will pay a veryyy small amount of money (fractions of pennies) to big Caller ID databases to store that phone record. In turn, some of those databases actually then pass an even smaller fraction of that fee BACK to the original caller — in this case, the spammers. And with millions of these spam/robocalls made every day, it’s easy to see how the revenue can add up.

And finally, by using the “neighbor spoofing” that I mentioned above, spammers are hoping you’ll at least answer the phone. Because even if you immediately hang up once you realize the terrible mistake you’ve made, they now know your line is “active” and can pass it around to whatever shady, slimy network of other spammers they are part of to keep this insanity going.

Like I said, maddening.

READY TO FIGHT BACK?

While I don’t have a fix-it-all solution for you, I DID find a helpful app that I recently purchased and downloaded. Yes, I (reluctantly) paid for it. But after using it for the past few weeks I can safely say it has been worth every penny. The app is called RoboKiller and the recommendation came from the most unlikely of sources — my Mom! You read that right. The person I typically use as a benchmark for tech illiteracy brought this glorious app to my attention. She actually read about it in an email newsletter from the local electronics store in Telluride, but kudos to her for actually READING the newsletter and spotting that this app might be something I’d be interested in. See, she’s getting better! Must be all those hours she has spent reading TIRL (insert sarcastic-faced smiley). 

HOW IT WORKS

The app is fairly intuitive and easy to use. It will request access to your contacts, which I don’t love (I assume they request it so the app doesn’t block any of your contacts’ numbers), but reluctantly allowed. Otherwise, the setup was straightforward and only took a few minutes. Once the setup is done you can just sit back and watch the app works its magic. RoboKiller can send you notifications when it blocks a call, but I eventually turned them off to avoid notification overload.

However, a benefit to keeping the notifications ON is the ability to take advantage of one of RoboKiller’s funny little features: Answer Bots. RoboKiller’s Answer Bots answer all of the spam/robocalls that it blocks, and are entertaining recordings that are designed to annoy the spam callers. In theory, this is brilliant, but the unfortunate reality is that nowadays these calls tend to be recorded scripts where the “person” on the other end of the phone is not actually a person. It’s too bad because the Answer Bot concept would be a heck of a lot funnier if they WERE real people. Cue this classic Seinfeld scene. So good.

Despite the lack of the true telemarketer calls of old, RoboKiller records the “interactions” between the spammer/robocaller and the Answer Bots so you can listen to them at your leisure. But again, the recordings aren’t usually worth listening to since they tend to be one robot “talking to” another robot. Welcome to 2018. 

WHAT I LIKE

My experience with RoboKiller has been great so far. No joke: not a single spam call has gotten through since I bought the app, and more importantly, those neighborhood spoofing calls have completely stopped. I was curious how RoboKiller would handle the spoofing calls since technically those ARE the phone numbers of real people — they’ve just been temporarily hijacked. Luckily RoboKiller doesn’t actually block these calls, it just seems to know that the number is being spoofed. Don’t ask me how this works — it just does. And that has been a total game-changer for me since that was where the majority of my spammer headaches came from.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The app has accidentally flagged a couple of legitimate numbers from a couple of vendors that I work with in my 9-5, but instead of actually blocking them it has asked me to verify if the number should be blocked in the future. Once a week I’ll go through the “blocked” list and make sure it hasn’t blocked anyone I know, and so far that hasn’t been a big issue.

THE QUICK & DIRTY

  • It won’t block 100% of your spam/robocalls, but it claims to reduce them by 90% in the first 30 days — from personal experience, I would say this is accurate, and then some!
  • RoboKiller will actually stop the calls from ringing on your phone, and will alert you when it blocks a call (if you have notifications turned on)
  • How does it work, you ask? RoboKiller calls it “audio fingerprinting”, essentially taking advantage of the fact that while scammers can change their numbers, they can’t change their voices (or the recordings they use). So RoboKiller detects voice patterns and then continues to add to its ever-growing database of spammers so it can continue to block, block, and then block some more.
  • The app allows you to set-up and manage your own personal “Block” and “Allow” lists; I used to add a TON of numbers to my iPhone’s “block” list, but I’ve since moved them all into RoboKiller
  • There’s a feature called “Super Caller ID” that is supposed to be able to help identify unknown numbers and match them to names/addresses/photos from social media so that you know who is calling; honestly, I am not a HUGE fan of this (seems a bit creepy) so I don’t have it turned on
  • RoboKiller offers a free 7-day trial so you can test it out before buying
  • The app costs $9.99/month or $69.99/year (I know that seems steep and I think they recently raised their prices!)
  • Their website has some interesting facts and articles about spam/robocalls that are actually pretty interesting (some were mentioned in this post)! Just in case you’re a nerd like me and want to learn more.

To wrap things up, if you’re tired of this nonsense (and let’s be honest, who isn’t), take things into your own hands and give RoboKiller a try. I know many people are vehemently against paying for apps, but in this case, I promise you it’s at least worth the 7-day trial. I honestly didn’t realize how annoying the spam calls were — until they stopped. I think you’ll feel the same. 

Also — put your phone number on the National “Do Not Call Registry”. It won’t stop all spam calls, but it doesn’t hurt 

And finally, some additional reading that paints a pretty grim picture of the state of spam calls going into 2019:

Report: Your Cellphone is Going to Get Tons More Spam Calls Next Year

How to Stop Robocalls on your iPhone 

Here’s Why You’re Getting So Many Spam Calls

Why Robocallers Win Even if You Don’t Answer

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