For one Louisville man, the stream of spam calls won't stop. Here's how to fight back

·7 min read

The call usually comes at 8:25 a.m. It’s always the same. “Medicare Assist” shows up on Stephen Schuster’s caller ID.

Other calls come through on the landline during the day, including the pesky ones that rouse Schuster from an afternoon nap.

If it’s not Medicare Assist attempting to sell Medicare supplement insurance, it’s the company trying to sell him burial insurance.

Most of the time he lets the call go to voicemail. Sometimes he’ll answer.

He’s tried being cordial. He’s requested to be taken off the call list. Other times he’s stern and direct.

Different tactics. Same outcome. The calls keep coming.

“It’s just a frequent annoyance,” said Schuster, who lives in east Louisville. “I haven’t lost any money. All I’ve lost is time.”

Others haven't been so lucky.

Consumers reported some 644,000 phone-based fraud incidents and nearly $700 million in losses due to phone-based fraud in 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. government agency that promotes consumer protection.

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Even with call-blocking smartphone apps and the National Do Not Call Registry, which aims to filter out these bothersome calls, no tactic can totally stop them, said Brad Reaves, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University.

“Your readers certainly shouldn’t blame themselves for robocalls,” said Reaves, who researches telephone and cellular network abuse. “You didn’t cause the robocalls and unfortunately you can’t really make them stop.”

Still, there are tools worth trying to cut the number of calls and strategies for handling these irritating intrusions.

Schuster reached out to The Courier Journal seeking solutions to the persistent annoyance.

“If anyone has found something that works, please share it!"

The National Do Not Call Registry

Perhaps the most well-known tool to combat unwanted calls is the National Do Not Call Registry, a federally maintained list that since 2003 has allowed people to register their landline or cellphone number to opt out of receiving sales calls.

Registration is free, simple and doesn’t expire. But it’s not a silver bullet.

Firstly, the registry isn’t a call blocker. It doesn’t swat away suspicious calls. It’s a list that tells companies you’re not interested in their sales call. Businesses are required by law to check the registry and remove registry numbers from their calling lists.

“The robocalls that are driving everybody crazy, these aren’t folks that are concerned with being law abiding,” Reaves said.

FTC rules do allow certain types of calls, even for numbers on the registry. Political, charity and debt collection calls are all allowed, as are surveys and informational calls (such as a utility confirming a service appointment).

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Companies are also allowed to call registered numbers if a consumer has recently done business with them, or if a consumer has given a company written permission to call. The good news is people can ask companies to remove them and they must abide.

Reaves did just that when his internet service provider called him repeatedly to sell him on a cable TV package. After a third request to stop calling him — and a mention of a possible report to the FTC — the sales calls stopped.

Nationally, there were more than 5 million complaints in the 2021 federal fiscal year tied to unwanted phone calls believed to have violated the do not call list. And those are only the ones that were reported.

Most of these complaints concerned robocalls. In 2021, Kentuckians registered nearly 54,000 complaints to the FTC about the Do Not Call Registry. These complaints were tied to suspected imposter scams and calls about warranty plans, medical services or prescriptions and debt reduction.

Two-thirds were robocalls, compared to nearly one-fourth live callers, according to federal data.

The FTC says robocalls trying to sell something are likely illegal, if not an outright scam.

“If someone is already breaking the law calling you, there’s a good chance it’s a scam,” reads the FTC’s webpage on robocalls. “At the very least, it’s a company you don’t want to do business with.”

Consumers can check if their numbers are on the registry by visiting DoNotCall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222 from the number in question.

Other tools to combat spam calls

Schuster has gone beyond the national registry and tried working with his phone service provider to lessen unwanted calls, a tactic he said seems to have had mixed results.

Many major phone carriers offer specific resources and tools for their customers to help block spam calls.

The Federal Communications Commission lists a wealth of carrier-specific call blocking resources on its website for mobile and landline phone users. The FTC, too, offers guidance for consumers on its "how to block unwanted calls" webpage.

Besides phone company tools, consumers can also turn to free or low-cost apps that can either help block suspected spam calls or better label them as such. The FCC lists options on its website under “call blocking tools and resources” and USA TODAY has also reviewed app options.

“They’re not perfect,” Reaves said of third-party call blocking apps. “They try hard, and they catch some of it.”

Other strategies include turning on your phone’s “do not disturb” feature during overnight hours or manually blocking any number that repeatedly calls you.

How to protect yourself

The best way to protect yourself against fraud or financial loss is to simply hang up the phone, said Gary Adkins, a retired state prosecutor who volunteers with AARP Kentucky.

“Sometimes it’s very difficult to hang up, especially if you’re someone who seeks a conversation,” Adkins added. “Some of our seniors are tied into their home or a location and they don’t get calls from folks, and it’s a way of talking to someone.”

Given that people can “spoof” numbers – that is, make it appear one phone number is calling you while disguising the true number – Adkins recommended being cautious even with numbers that share your area code or first few digits of your phone number.

Reaves echoed that advice, emphasizing consumers should resist calls to reveal personal information.

“Robocallers are your enemy, and in war, you give as little info to the enemy as possible,” he said.

If your phone says it’s a spam risk, don’t answer it. If you answer a call and realize it’s a scam, hang up.

“They’re calling in violation of law to bother you,” he said. “It’s not rude to hang up on them.”

Imposter robocalls, in which the caller poses as an official such as the Social Security Administration, are a leading cause of complaints.

Reaves said consumers should be skeptical of callers who ask for sensitive information without being able to authenticate their identity. He recommended consumers tell the phone agent they’re going to hang up, look up the phone number of the entity in question and call that number.

“If they have a problem with that, that tells you there’s a problem,” he said.

Schuster said he's skeptical unwanted calls will ever cease, with scammers often not too far behind efforts to stop them.

Reaves noted the FTC does routinely sue those suspected of being behind robocalls and said he was optimistic about new FCC rules concerning caller ID that would reduce the effectiveness of spoofed calls and make scam calls easier to trace.

As Schuster spoke with Reader’s Watchdog earlier this month, a brief beep on the line indicated he was getting another call.

“Miami,” Schuster said, sighing. “I don’t know anyone there.”

Matthew Glowicki’s Reader's Watchdog column helps readers get answers and holds public officials, businesses and individuals to account. Contact him at watchdog@courierjournal.com, 502-582-4000 or on Twitter @mattglo.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Spam calls won't stop for Louisville man. How to block and avoid them