Phone spam soars to a new record

Last Updated Dec 19, 2017 10:30 AM EST

More people than ever have signed up for the "Do Not Call Registry," which is supposed to stop telemarketers from bothering you. But spam phone calls continue to burgeon, thanks to illegal robocalls. 

During 2017, Americans fielded 76 percent more robocalls than they did in 2016 -- for a total of 18 billion, according to a new analysis by Hiya, a robocall blocking service. That's despite the fact that the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry has grown by nearly 4 million phone numbers over the course of the past year. 

The registry now has 230 million phone numbers on it, up from 226 million a year ago. However, complaints about unwanted telemarketing calls soared 34 percent during the year, the agency said. The vast majority of those unwanted calls were made by computers -- robocalls. Both Hiya and the FTC issued year-end reports this week. 

The Do Not Call Registry does work, but it blocks only legal calls, explains Jonathan Nelson, a senior product manager at Hiya. The trouble is that crooks don't abide by the regulations, he said. 

Indeed, 99 percent of the computer-generated commercial sales calls made in the US are made illegally, a government spokesman said. FTC regulations barred unwanted telemarketing calls back in 1991, and the rules were strengthened several times since then to address this scourge. Still, companies using the technique to sell everything from debt repair to cable TV service ignore the rules and enlist computers to make millions of phone calls per hour in contravention of the law and the Do Not Call Registry.

The latest trick is what Hiya calls the "neighbor scam." This involves spoofing the first six digits of your number -- the area code and the next three digits -- to make it appear as if you're getting a call from a neighbor.

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"While many consumers now know to be wary of unknown callers, the latest threat comes disguised as a number similar to your own, dramatically increasing the likelihood that someone would answer the call," said Nelson. This type of robocalling scam increased 750 percent during 2017, he added.

Once consumers answer, they're subjected to promises, lies, threats and immediate payment demands. One successful robocall can finance 100,000 more illegal ones, according to the FTC. 

Experts advise that consumers block robocalls with software, hang up or simply fail to answer unrecognized calls. An FTC spokesman emphasized that you shouldn't engage the caller, nor hit any button on your phone -- even if the caller says something like hitting 1 on your keypad will add you to that robocaller's "Do Not Call" list. 

In reality, when you hit a key to respond to a robocaller's automated system, it simply verifies that your number is live. That confirmation is likely to increase the number of calls you'll receive in the future.

If you happen to get called by a real company via robocall, report the company to the FTC. The government is actively pursuing robocall violations and won a record $260 million judgement against satellite TV provider Dish Network (DISH) last summer. Rival DirecTV (T) has been fined for robocalling violations twice in the past and is now facing a class action in Georgia.