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The Watchdog: Keep fighting for a life without robocalls

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

No, it's not your imagination. Robocalls to your home phone and cellphone are getting worse, not better.

"You're exactly right," says Aaron Foss when The Watchdog tells him of my suspicion. Foss is the inventor of, the best call blocker out there. He's the king of blocked calls.

"When everybody thought it would get better, it's actually getting worse," he says.

I know you're frustrated, too. Like me, you probably answer calls with suspicion, not a warm greeting as in the past. (As I wrote this paragraph, my phone rang. When I picked up, a robot voice asked for Dave Lieber. "Is this she?" it asked. Click.)

Paul Campbell of Allen agrees. "There has been no progress. I received seven robocalls on my home phone yesterday and today and four calls on my cell."

I'm going to share the latest robocall information here with you, but warn you that I also have some unsettling news about how scammers will reach you in the future.

Already, though, I marvel at the scammers' smarts. Robocall scammers aren't one step ahead of government regulators. They're six steps ahead.

The one that amazes me is Headset Robot. Maybe you got a call like this, too.

You know how there's a momentary pause between when you answer a call and a robot voice begins to speak? When Headset Lady calls, the robot voice says after the pause, "Sorry, I was adjusting my headset." That's brilliant because there's no person, no headset, not even a head.

There are four ways to block the calls, and none of them work 100 percent.

The first is favorite It won a federal contest for best blocker. But it only works on Internet phone lines (offered with a cable bundle package) and iPhones (not Android yet). It doesn't work on copper wired lines.

For it to work, a phone carrier must offer a feature called simultaneous ringing. The call rings both on your phone and on nomorobo's computers, which answer and then hang up for you. It's free for internet phone lines but costs $1.99 a month on iPhones. I use it but had to reset it this week so the app worked again. Nomorobo is now blocking 46,000 bad phone numbers.

The second option is a variety of iPhone or Android phone apps available. There are dozens that claim to work. I haven't tested them.

The third way is specialized phones that carry call-blocking features.

The fourth is using tools available from your phone carrier. Check with them. AT&T, for example, offers free Call Protect for cellphones. I'm not a fan because the app asks for your contacts. I don't give apps access to my contacts. An AT&T spokesman tells me you can decline the request.

Even with all these choices, the calls continue.

Maureen Mahoney of Consumers Union, which runs an anti-robocall campaign , tells me, "Most consumers don't have access to effective call-blocking tools."

The Federal Communications Commission, with its slow rule-making procedures, is falling behind. Complaints are up, and the FCC is looking at changes that would make it easier for phone companies to block calls from fake numbers. The latest craze is making Caller ID numbers look like they're coming from someone in your neighborhood.

Followers of The Watchdog might remember that it was my interview with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson that led to the creation last year of a promising federal Robocall Strike Force that brought together the top tech companies in the nation to work together.

Stephenson told me he didn't have regulators' permission to block calls even though regulators approved that change previously. Hearing this, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appointed Stephenson to lead the strike force.

The strike force met last year, but when Wheeler resigned, the strike force lost its godfather. New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai believes solutions should come more from industry rather than regulation. (Good luck with that, sir.)

The strike force has no future meetings scheduled.

The new worry is the threat of robocalls that skip the ring and go straight to your voicemail.

Vendors are asking the FCC for permission to approve this moronic annoyance.

Consumers Union warns that this would overwhelm voicemail with telemarketing and debt collector messages. "Consumers have no way to limit, restrict or block unwanted voicemail messages from particular callers," CU says.

I keep hearing from folks who mistakenly answer "yes" to a robot voice asking "Can you hear me?" Supposedly, that yes can be used to later prove you agreed to buy something.

I call fake on that. Don't worry about it. It's more urban legend than anything else.

Here's the scary part. If the scammers are six steps ahead of regulators and regulators are still dealing with phone calls, they'll fall farther behind.

Cybersecurity expert Ryan Kalember told The New York Times the next step will come when scammers use technology to combine your phone number with your email address and your social media postings. Imagine all the ways they'll be able to fool you.

Regulators are worried about phone calls, but nomorobo's Foss points out that a phone call today can be voice, text, voicemail or a Skype call. The regulators will continue to fall behind, and we will continue to be annoyed.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.


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Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265