Off Topic Post Ahead: Combating Robocalls

Last Revision: 5-January-2016

Boy have we been busy at StarCircleAcademy. Eric has been burning the midnight oil in his day job being a mad scientist and all.  Steven survived layoffs at his day job and found his workload tripled, and Harold keeps plugging away writing, teaching and creating full time.

We are going a different direction with this article which we hope you’ll regard as a public service announcement.  Even though Steven lives in the Silicon Valley, his only high-speed option was Comcast/Xfinity which rates an “F” on the Better Business Bureau. But this article is not about Xfinity, their egregiously intentionally confusing pricing, or their inept customer service.

Death to robocallers

Death to robocallers

We Are Tackling Robocallers – And Saving You $

With high speed internet, it’s now possible for Steven to more effectively run Webinars at home as well as work from home part of the week on his day job. But this gave rise to severe annoyance.  One day while working at home Steven got 11 “robocalls” from telemarketers including a call you’ve probably gotten before.  The most famous fraudulent (and illegal) caller is “Rachel of CardHolder Services“. You probably have gotten robocalls yourself, even if you, like us, have been on the Do Not Call list for a long time. Even though Steven has successfully sued telemarketers in the past the RoboCallers with their automated voice messages are hard targets to assault via small claims courts. Robocallers spoof phone numbers and you can not find out who they really are without following the money (i.e. paying for the scam).

The FTC even held a contest to find a way to stop robocalls. The winner was NoMoRobo is rather ingenious.  You configure your phone to simultaneously ring a number at NoMoRobo which analyzes the calling number. If the calling number is a suspected robocaller – NoMoRobo answers the call for you and your phone stops ringing.  In short, you don’t have to hang up on the RoboCaller yourself, NoMoRobo will do it.

BUT There is a catch.  Many, many services do not support simultaneous ring, including AT&T, or Xfinity’s (overpriced) voice offering.  AT&T has all sorts of very expensive plans to “help”, but mostly they help themselves to your money and provide next to zero value.

At AT&T a landline phone with CallerID, Anonymous call rejection and number blocking will cost about $45 / month after all fees and taxes. There will be a significant limit to how many numbers you can block while the robocallers can spoof any number they wish.

But if you already have a decently fast internet, you can get VoIP from providers for less than $11/month.  Who? PhonePower Ooma for one. But we will get to that in a minute.

Here is how I set up my service:

  1. Call AT&T and tell them the Robocallers and telemarketers are annoying (IMPORTANT STEP!)
  2. Call AT&T and tell them I want “simultaneous ring” service so that I can use NoMoRobo to stop RoboCallers.
  3. Open an account with PhonePower** and wait for their device to arrive.  I *could* have moved my phone number to them, but decided it will be better to get a new number.
  4. Called AT&T and told them I’d had enough and to cancel all services on my landline except call forwarding.  This gives me a few months to notify folks of my new phone number… and I get more features out of PhonePower at a lower price.
  5. Installed my device and configured my landline to forward to the new number.
  6. Unplugged my cordless phone from my landline jack and plugged it into the jack on the device (an ObiHai, or if using OOMA, the Telo).
  7. Signed up with (free).
  8. Registered my new phone number (and reregistered my old numbers) to the US Do Not Call list.
  9. Configured my PhonePower line to first ring the NoMoRobo number for 6 seconds, then to ring my PhonePower number.  This is BETTER than simultaneous ring because it doesn’t ring the phone in my house until AFTER NoMoRobo has had a chance to disconnect it for me.

Wondering why I’ve removed “PhonePower”. I can no longer recommend them. Horrible billing practices and customer support.

What Can You Do?

You can report the number to the FTC here.  Too bad their site is painful to use.

Change your answering machine greeting

“Please Hold for a second…..  (several second pause) You’ve reached us. Leave a message”.

Why? Because robocaller software listens to the line and when they think they’ve got a live person speaking, they play out their message or connect you to an agent. By leaving a pause and using a short greeting, you convince them into thinking your answering machine is a live person which causes them to leave a message or summon a live person whose time you want to waste as much of as possible (see next item). Also, if it’s a Robocall and you fooled it into leaving a message you will have proof of their call should you need it in court!

Answer It Yourself… and Do THIS if you get a Live Person

The worst thing you can do for your fellow man is to immediately hang up. The worst thing you can do for you own sanity is to scream or shout obscenities (though sometimes it is quite therapeutic). As soon as you realize it is a telemarketer say:  “Sounds interesting, Tell me more.” Then put your phone on mute, put it down and do not hang up until you hear the “re-order” (phone off hook) tone.

A> Every second they spend on you they cannot annoy someone else.  A few days ago I had a caller who called back three times. The second time he called he said “so are you interested?”  I said: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you very well, could you explain again?” (MUTE). The third time “I’m still confused, explain the benefits…”
B> Most telemarketers are trained to not hang up until they are clearly dismissed… if you make it easy for them to move on they will.

Isn’t it mean to waste their time?  Perhaps, but remember they called you in violation of the Do Not Call rules!

NEVER Do Business with a Telemarketer

If you’re on the Do Not Call list and they are calling you anyway they are unethical and willing to get business illegally. Does that sound like a business you want to do ANYTHING for you?

Do Not Answer Any Questions in a “Survey”

First, many surveys – which are permitted under the Do Not Call rules – are actually marketing scams pretending that they are surveys. Either you’ll get the sales part right away, or you’ll be placed on a list to recall if they find out ANYTHING useful from you. Do not even acknowledge your name! As soon as they ask anything or give an inclination that they are a “survey” I tell them to “Put this number on your do not call list and send me a copy of your do not call policy.”  While survey takers are not required to do either, it’s worth a try.  If they press or say “we are exempt” then my response is: “And for that reason I will not participate in any survey.” Or you can participate in their survey and make up bogus answers.

Will These Tips Stop All the Calls?

Sadly, no. Political organizations, charities, and several other exemptions exist that allow those organizations to call you notwithstanding your status on the Do Not Call list.  Robocall scofflaws have also started spoofing (pretending to dial from) local numbers and businesses. You might even get what appears to be a call from your own number.  The only way to put an end to all the calls is to get a service that pre-answers and requires the user to press some (random) digits to connect to you.


What About Phone Power (OOMA, Vonage)?

PhonePower is one of many companies providing Voice over IP service. You’ve no doubt heard of Vonage, for example. But Vonage charges about $28/month (do not be misled that $9.99 price is temporary and doesn’t include all fees).  At Vonage you have to pay extra for a SoftPhone (computer based phone), for example.  Phone Power on the other hand acquired BroadVoice a company with whom I had service for several years with good service. Unfortunately PhonePower took a nose dive lately with unreasonable billing practices and inconsistent to no customer support. You might try OOMA instead. Or look at Vonage’s cheaper service – the catch: minutes over 400 per month will cost 5 cents each at Vonage.

Additional strikes against PhonePower, are that the service is nerdy to configure, their user interface is a tad clunky, and they do not have a feature like “call intercept”. See a review I wrote of PhonePower here. They have been hammered on Yelp, too. Much of the yelping seems to be over done, though.  I have also been less than thrilled with both tech support and the billing support.

Are There Other Alternatives?

Oh yeah. Google Voice, which is super cool and free and it has some spam caller detection features. And more… but beware. You might end up with an expensive poorly serviced/supported scenario.

9 thoughts on “Off Topic Post Ahead: Combating Robocalls

  1. Bruce Lathrop

    As always, well written and very informative.

    But Steven, how do you really feel about Comcast/Xfinity?!?!

  2. Steven Christenson Post author

    A user with a bogus email address and name posted “I Love Ooma – give it a try”. Here is our response:

    We looked at Oooma. A couple of problems came to mind:

    1. Ooma’s “multi ring” feature seems to be limited to two numbers and “Premier Service”. Premier service is also required for “community blacklist” which we doubt can be as effective as a large scale third-party solution like NoMoRobo or Google Voice. Personal blacklisting has a generous 256 number limit.

    A similar feature: “ring groups” is available to “business customers” at $20/mo. And even with ring groups, it’s not clear whether you can simultaneously (or sequentially) ring phone numbers “in the wild”.

    2. The Ooma website is very sparse and lacks details (including pricing).

    3. It appears the Ooma service uses a proprietary device, and requires additional devices to be purchased (e.g. handsets or a “linx”) to use your existing phone(s)). Support clarified that you can use your existing DECT 6.0 handsets – if you have them, that is.

    I spent 5 minutes waiting for chat with Ooma customer service. They confirmed that “Premier Service” is $10/mo plus taxes and fees (about $14/mo in total). That means Ooma is more expensive than PhonePower both on a monthly basis and in initial equipment costs.

    Let us know if you know something about Ooma that is different from what we’ve learned. Ooma is a better choice than Vonage or a land line, however.

  3. Shirlye Brose

    Truly, if everyone wasted the time of these criminals it would not be profitable for them to continue making illegal calls. We get them all day long at my small business. If I cannot immediately identify that it is an illegal call, I sometimes leave legitimate customers on hold! Grrrrrrrrr… Now, if they have a number on caller id (which they do now more and more to circumvent blocking), I call them back on 4 of my 5 lines. Agents come on the line and no one is there. It is a taste of their own medicine. If I am not busy I do it multiple times. Is it illegal? I do not know or care. If I am really aggravated with a particular robocaller I stay on the line and ask them if they like hang up calls. They do not. They are usually incensed. Well, guess what, so am I.

  4. Robert Milton

    Charities and political callers will generally agree to drop me from their call list. Worked great with the Red Cross, for instance, who called night and day until I finally answered. No calls after that.

    What’s really annoying is the cold call exemption for local businesses. “I’m a general contractor working in your area”, or “Is your electric bill more than $100 a month?” (Solar power sales), or carpet cleaning offers, etc.

    Any suggestions there? As always, thanks for the blog! Nomirobo “isn’t yet supported” for Comcast business users, though it is, surprisingly, for residential users.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      There is no exemption for local businesses! I’ve sued a few of those, too. If you ARE a business, however there is no escape. If they are calling a business number, tell them it’s a personal number.

  5. StarCircleAcademy

    FYI: I, Steven dropped my landline (transferred the number to Phone Power). While this made one heck of a mess of the AT&T billing website, it does mean that we no longer have a landline at all. That’s a heap of monthly savings over AT&T. My experience with AT&T has been so overwhelmingly horrible (almost 3 hours on the phone for them to fix their billing – with no results), that we are eager to drop kick AT&T from every hook they have in us.

    One tip to all: if offered the chance to do combined billing through AT&T DO NOT do it. If you plan to drop a landline from a combined plan, separate the billing first as those klutzes are clueless. Another tip: As thoughtful and planet protecting as it is to go with paperless AT&T billing, DO NOT DO IT. When their system is hosed, you’ll have no way to see your bill.

  6. Thomas N

    I have been receiving telemarketer spam for the past decade. I believe the first line of defense against this is to try one’s best to not be on any of there spam lists. One way to surely be on there (as I found out the hard way) is to sign up for those sweepstakes you see at the mall for a new car or vacation/cruise, where you have to attend a 90 minute high pressure sales presentation.

    Having failed that first line of defense, I currently filter out my telemarketer calls using a free app called “YouMail”. It’s a free service that basically customizes your greeting if it goes to your voicemail. Your cellphone service must have call forwarding available to use YouMail. If you have an AT&T contract, usually you’ll be able to call forward but if you are on a pre-paid plan, this call forwarding service is generally not available. (There are other options available if you don’t have a contract — just ask me.)

    If I encounter a number that I am not familiar with (usually an out-of-state number), I’ll Google that number and often that number shows up on with a history of abuse reported from other callers (thank goodness for crowdsource reporting!). I then block this number on my iPhone, which makes it automatically go to voicemail without ringing. I set this number into the “telemarketer scum” group on my YouMail and it greets with a standard “the number you have reached is disconnected…” greeting. I’ll never hear from that number again.

    The downside is that I’ll have to do this for every number that I encounter. I used to receive about 1 or 2 telemarketer calls every day before having an iPhone and using YouMail. Now, it’s down to 1 every 2 or 3 weeks.

    What we really need to solve this telelmarketing cancer is legislation to do away with spoofed calls. The Do-Not-Call list is a step in the right direction, but I find it really doesn’t do much to address this plague.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Some great info, there. Thank you. I use the 800notes and other websites. I just wish there was an iPhone app that could intercept the call, look it up and hang up on telemarketers. Looks like YouMail is a Google Voice replacement that we didn’t know about. Thanks for bringing it up.


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