The Loop

How to stop all the murderously obnoxious robocalls you get 12 times a day

May 14, 2018

Feel like you’re getting called by an unusual number of obnoxious robots lately? You are!

The good news: So is everyone else. Garbage calls are way, way up in 2018. They’re fueled partly by how we live in a world where the very expectation of privacy is a pathetic lie (and as always hello to the Uzbekistan teenagers monitoring my blood type, shopping habits and grocery preferences). But they’re also fueled by the ancient and cold rule which fuels all commerce: They’re stupidly cheap, work enough to warrant continued use and aren’t policed in any meaningful fashion.

Here are some terrible numbers: The New York Times reports that 3.4 billion robocalls were initiated in April, an increase of 900 million a month over a year ago. Surprisingly, this shocking increase has gone noticed! In a stunning display of showing up to work, both the House and Senate passed or introduced bills designed to minimize abuses in recent years. They’re not working, but, y’know, points for effort. But HEY HERE’S A SURPRISE, a federal court recently struck down an Obama-administration definition of a “robo-dialer,” leaving it up to Trump’s expertly staffed and consumer-friendly government to come up with a new one. According to the NYT, an FCC spokesman said the commission “would seek public comment on how auto-dialers should be defined, and then ‘take action based on the record it compiles,’” HAHAHA that will either never happen, or the definition will include the word “C-3P0.”

Yet some of us still naively cling to the shred of belief that we should exert some control over our own lives, even on a device that routinely sends our whereabouts to at least three aspiring Skynets. If you’re in this dwindling brood, read on for a few ways you can minimize robocalls, maybe, sort of, who knows:

1. For the love of God, DON’T ANSWER ROBOCALLS. If you answer a robot, it knows you are alive and will forever mark you as such. Besides, how many positive calls originate from numbers that aren’t already in your phone? No one is calling to offer you Hawaiian villas; they are, however, calling because they think you’re a man from West Palm Beach named Dan who is criminally delinquent on his Discover card. (Seriously, Dan, pay your shit.)

2. If you do answer them, DO NOT respond to the thoughtful invitation to Opt Out after you’ve answered. This confirms to the dark web that you not only exist but listen long enough to interact, and you will never be left alone again.

3. Sign up for the Do Not Call registry. Or don’t! This is a process that’s inexplicably complicated but makes up for it by having no effect. You are dealing with anonymous untraceable networks of trash people attempting to sell you false timeshare deals from Bolivia, they do not have an especially thriving interest in American telecom law.

4. If you do answer the phone, and the person asks for Dan, and you tell them you’re not Dan, try to keep the conversation going. Employees of debt-collection agencies always sound like they could use a little break in their day.

5. Especially don’t answer any calls that appear to originate from some slighty variation on your own number. This is “neighborhood spoofing,” a new-ish technique used by those who use the precious gift of life to sell strangers health care plans that don’t work. (Well, these specific health-care plans that don’t work, anyway.) They do this by employing technology that makes it appear that you’re getting a call from a number very close to yours, some disquietingly familiar combination of digits that more or less resembles yours. The idea, of course, is that in your phone-addicted stupor you will scream, “My GOD it’s me FROM THE FUTURE,” and answer the phone, ostensibly to learn whatever lesson You From 2049 is endeavoring to share. (My guess: “Trump is still president, give up now.”)

6. Fight robots with more robots. The Jolly Roger Telephone Company offers a service that send automated calls to a different robot, which senses speech patterns and offers its own customized robo-responses to keep the telemarketers busy and, if all goes well, murderously annoyed. The company’s website has posted recordings of telemarketers losing their minds, which is a briefly satisfying experience.

7. Accept that this is never going away. It’s too easy, as robocallers can dial millions of numbers a day. And it’s already illegal to make automated calls to mobile phones, except for things like school snow days, and no one cares. So don’t answer calls from people you don’t know, which, interestingly, is not a bad policy for life in general.