Avoiding Robocalls

I have one of those day jobs where the rules regarding phone use are pretty relaxed. As long as the work gets done and you’re not overdoing it, nobody really minds if you send a text or step out to take a call for a moment. As such, at least a few times a week I’m treated to the following from one or both of my coworkers: “Hold on a second,” (answers phone), “hello?” (hangs up a moment later) “Robocall.” I, on the other hand, rarely get unwanted texts or calls. It seems everyone I know is really struggling with unwanted, annoying phone calls and texts, especially as the election looms closer here in the US (let me tell you how many times your unwarranted, North Korea-esque political texts have changed my mind about who to vote for). So in this blog post, I want to share what I’ve personally done that I think has brought my robocall/robotext amount down to near zero. Keep in mind, I said “near zero.” I still get one here and there, but it’s almost nonexistent compared to others I know.

What Not To Do

Let’s start with what not to do: please, please, please for the love of god do not download one of those stupid “caller verifier” apps. You know the ones I’m talking about: RoboKiller, Truecaller, Call Filter, etc. Do these apps work? I suppose. But they work using the network effect. In other words, these apps read your contacts list and add it to their database. They’re aiming to make a database of every phone number out there and who it belongs to so they know which ones are legit and which ones aren’t. I’ve said on my website that your carrier-issued cell number is essentially as good as a social security number these days and I stand by that statement. As such, some of the more privacy-minded people in your contacts list may not appreciate having their phone number shared to an unknown (and probably unsecured) database without their consent. I could make a lot of arguments here about metadata and relationship mapping, but it basically goes back to “don’t be a dick.” Assume that your contacts consider this information personal and don’t share it without their consent.

What To Do

If you’re like I was, you’ve probably been using the same phone number generously for years, maybe even decades. In this case, your number is already out there and while there are still good defenses (just cause you didn’t notice the leak before doesn’t mean you don’t patch it when you find it), it probably won’t do much for you. My SIM phone number that I’ve had since 2009 still gets a couple robocalls a week and a few texts per month. So you’ll need to get a new phone number if you want to truly get rid of robocalls and texts to the extent that I have. I strongly encourage the use of Voice-over-IP numbers, such as MySudo or Google Voice, and I explain more about that reasoning in the page I just linked. The important thing, whether you go with VoIP or ask your carrier for a new number, is that you follow good habits regarding your new number. I’ll talk about that in a second. One reason I like the VoIP method, and the reason it’s been so effective for me, is because Apple offers a way to shut off incoming calls to your SIM number. Go to Settings > Phone > “Notifications: Off” & “Silence Unknown Callers: On.” For Android I haven’t yet found a perfect solution. The most effective method that will probably work for most readers is to turn on “Do Not Disturb” and then allow your contacts through.
Next, depending on how serious your problem is, there are a few higher-level solutions you can try. These might be a little privacy invasive to some people so they may not be ideal for the hardcore privacy enthusiast, but for the average person they’re probably acceptable solutions. The first one is to register for the National Do Not Call Registry if you live in the US. This is actually much more effective than you would think. It won’t stop scammers who are outside US legal jurisdiction, but it does stop many of the more legitimate (but still unwanted) callers. This list does need your email address, so as always I encourage the use of masked email addresses if you go this route. Second, many cell carriers are now offering programs where they help block known or suspected spam numbers. You can call your carrier and ask if they can activate this feature for you.

Privacy Isn’t Products and Services, It’s a Lifestyle

Between all these steps, you should have seriously reduced the number of robocalls coming in and bugging you throughout the day. But unless you make some behavioral changes, it won’t take long for them to come back. You can keep playing whack-a-mole with new VoIP numbers, or you can retrain yourself and never have to think about it again. As I said before, most of us are conditioned to hand out our phone numbers like candy, but this is dangerous and it quickly puts your phone number back in robocall and scam databases. I mentioned also that your phone number is basically a social security number these days, and you should start thinking of and treating it like so.
At it’s purest form, protecting your phone number is simply a matter of asking “does this person really need my phone number?” A lot of places ask for your phone number, and almost none of them actually need it. For example, if you go out to eat at Chili’s and there’s a wait, they ask for your phone number so they can text you when your table is ready. You can opt out of this and ask them to just call your name instead. When you place an order online for food, they ask for your phone number in case there’s any questions or issues with the order. They never call or have questions. Give them a fake number. Your area code plus 867-5309 is always a safe bet (it’s an 80’s pop song). If phone number is optional, don’t give them anything. Even when ordering a package online, unless it’s a vitally important package that you can’t afford to lose (such as medicine), you can safely put a fake number in the order form. Other important areas where you should use a legitimate number are things like banking, healthcare providers, and work. By being judicious about who you give your phone number to and having a backup fake number ready to go, you’ll do an excellent job of keeping your new number from populating into databases where it will be abused and used to annoy you.
You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @[email protected] or support my work on Liberapay.

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