How to block the annoying robocalls that you keep getting

  • Robocalls can originate from anywhere and are hard to fight.
  • There are apps you can download to help prevent them, and steps you should take when you receive them.
  • Here's how to stop those annoying robocalls.

If you're like me, chances are you're constantly getting bombarded by robocalls. You know the type: You pick up the phone only to hear some pre-recorded message — sometimes not even in English — about how you owe someone money or you've won a free vacation to Barbados.

These sorts of robocalls are smarter than ever, too. Spammers are capable of spoofing the area code where you live so that it appears to be a local call or even one from a legitimate business you've used. And of course you answer: Maybe it's a neighbor, the drug store or a doctor calling.

Usually it isn't.

I'm going to walk you through how some of those calls happen in the first place, and how to start blocking them.

Where robocalls originate

Some businesses are legitimate.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Some businesses are legitimate.

Anyone can pay to make millions of robocalls. There are legitimate businesses that follow the law which you can pay to have your message sent out to people around the globe. Advanced tools let you pick the area code the call originates from, so someone can target a specific area and use a local number.

Other people and groups around the globe don't necessarily care about US laws, so they're able to call you from pretty much anywhere — but with similar tools to what legitimate businesses offer. They usually call for private info such as social security numbers and bank accounts, or cash, with the hopes they'll trick you into giving it away.

Current scams listed by the FTC include people impersonating the Chinese Consulate and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, for example.

What to do when you get one

If you see a number you don't recognize, even if it's from a local area code, let the message go to voicemail. If it's important — say a message from a school nurse — you'll get a voicemail.

If you pick up, you should end the call immediately after you realize it's a pre-recorded message.

"Hang up the phone," FTC attorney Kati Daffan advises. "Don't press one to speak to a live operator. And don't press any other number to get off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it will probably just lead to more robocalls."

How to avoid them

Mr. Number for Android
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Mr. Number for Android

Your first line of defense is to sign up for the FTC's Do Not Call Registry. It's illegal for telemarketers to call you if you're on it, though plenty still do.

Sign up for the FTC's Scam Alerts. This will help you know about current robocalls and scams that have been reported to the FTC, such as the two I mentioned above.

You should also download apps that have frequently-updated lists of known robocall numbers that are automatically blocked. The US wireless industry group CTIA recommends several apps for Android and iPhone, including the app Mr. Number, which is highly rated in both app stores.

I downloaded Mr. Number and it offers a lot of options, including the ability to automatically block known scams, block suspected fraudsters, block numbers that are hidden on purpose, block numbers that aren't in your contacts and more.

Some wireless carriers also offer services that can help cut down on robocalls. AT&T offers a Call Protect app and T-Mobile has a Scam Block tool.

How to block a number

Blocking a number on Android
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Blocking a number on Android

It's almost impossible to completely avoid robocalls -- unless you block everyone who's not in your address book with an app -- since it's easy for scammers to create a new number and call you again. Still, you should know how to block a number on your phone. Here's how to do that on Android (the steps might vary by device) and on the iPhone:

On Android:

  • Open the Phone app
  • Tap the number that just called you
  • Tap "Details"
  • Tap "Block number"

On iPhone:

  • Open the Phone app.
  • Tap the "i" icon next to the number that called you.
  • Scroll down and select "Block this caller."

Report them to the FTC

If you follow the steps above you should receive fewer robocalls. If you still get them, you should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Doing so can help the FTC detect patterns and potentially stop whoever's sending those calls in the first place.