What are robocalls?

Robocalls are phone calls that use a computerized auto-dialer to deliver pre-recorded messages.

Robocalls are not a new phenomenon. They first emerged in the 1980s with the advent of automated dialing technology. Still, their prevalence has skyrocketed in recent years due to advancements in telecommunications and the availability of cheap, easily accessible software. Today, robocalls account for billions of calls annually, with some estimates suggesting that nearly half of all calls received in the United States are robocalls.


robocalls in December 2023


spam calls for every person in the U.S.

When are robocalls used?

Robocalls are most commonly used for telemarketing purposes, both legitimate and illegitimate.

  • Appointment reminders: Doctors, dentists, and other service providers may use robocalls to remind patients of upcoming appointments.
  • Flight cancellations or delays: Airlines may use it to notify passengers of changes to their travel plans.
  • School closures or delays: Schools may use them to inform parents and students about weather-related closures or schedule changes.
  • Emergency notifications: Government agencies may use them to alert the public about emergencies, such as severe weather or natural disasters.
  • Payment reminders: Businesses may use them to remind customers of upcoming bills or past-due payments.
  • Telemarketing scams: Telemarketing calls try to sell you products or services that are overpriced, of poor quality, or nonexistent.
  • Phishing scams: These robocalls trick you into giving up personal information, such as your social security number or credit card information.
  • Charity scams: These robocalls pretend to be from legitimate charities but are trying to steal your money.
  • Political robocalls: While some political robocalls are legitimate, others may spread misinformation or try to suppress voter turnout.

How do robocalls work?

Robocalls are made possible through the use of specialized software and hardware:

  1. Autodialer: This software automatically dials phone numbers from a list, sometimes millions of numbers per day. It can be programmed to dial specific area codes or phone number prefixes to target certain demographics or regions.
  2. Pre-recorded message: The autodialer plays a pre-recorded message once a call is connected. This voice message can be a simple sales pitch, a political message, or even a scam designed to trick you into giving up personal information.
  3. Interactive voice response (IVR): Some robocalls use IVR technology, which allows you to interact with the call by pressing buttons on your phone. This can be used to direct you to a live operator, to opt out of future calls, or to provide information.
  4. Caller ID spoofing: Robocallers often use caller ID spoofing to disguise their real phone number. They may display a fake number that looks similar to yours or use a number that appears to be from a government agency or a legitimate business.

Types of robocalls

Robocalls can be classified into several types based on their purpose and content:

Telemarketing robocalls

  • These calls aim to sell products or services, ranging from legitimate offers to scams.
  • Common examples include calls about car warranties, health insurance, travel deals, and debt relief.
  • Scammers often use aggressive tactics, false promises, and urgency to pressure people into making quick decisions.

Scam robocalls

  • These calls trick you into giving up personal information or money.
  • Common examples include calls from fake IRS agents threatening arrest, calls about winning a prize that requires an upfront fee, and calls offering low-interest loans or credit cards.
  • Scammers often use fear, intimidation, and urgency to manipulate people into complying with their demands.

Political robocalls

  • These calls are used by political campaigns to promote candidates, solicit donations, or conduct surveys.
  • They can be informative or persuasive; campaign finance laws often regulate their content.
  • Some political robocalls may be considered negative campaigning or contain misleading information.

Robocalls from legitimate organizations

  • These calls are made by businesses, non-profits, or government agencies for legitimate purposes.
  • Common examples include appointment reminders, payment notifications, school closures, flight cancellations, and emergency alerts.
  • These calls are usually informative and helpful and typically do not involve sales pitches or scams.

Other types

  • This category includes many robocalls that do not fit neatly into the other categories.
  • Examples include prank calls, survey calls, robocalls offering free trials or services, and robocalls from charities seeking donations.
  • The legitimacy and legality of these calls can vary depending on their specific content and purpose.

Are robocalls illegal?

Telemarketing robocalls are generally illegal calls unless the company has your written permission to call you with a robocall. This means they must have clearly asked for your consent, and you must have given it in writing.

Informational robocalls that are purely informational (such as appointment reminders or school closures) or calls to collect a debt are generally legal. However, robocalls that try to sell you services to lower your debt are illegal and often scams.

Political robocalls are generally legal but must follow specific rules, such as not calling cell phones without prior consent.

Some states have stricter laws regarding robocalls than federal laws. For example, some states require that all robocalls have an opt-out mechanism regardless of purpose.

What happens if you answer a robocall?

If you answer a robocall, several things could happen, depending on the nature of the call:

Legitimate robocalls

  • Informational: You’ll hear a recorded message about an appointment reminder, school closure, flight cancellation, or other relevant information.
  • Survey: You might be asked to participate in a survey by pressing buttons on your phone.
  • Debt collection: You’ll hear a message about an outstanding debt, and you may be offered options for repayment.

Scam robocalls

  • Verification: By answering, you confirm that your phone number is active, making you a target for future robocalls.
  • Data collection: The scammer might try to extract personal information from you, such as your name, address, or credit card details.
  • Fraudulent charges: Some scams record your voice saying “yes” to authorize unwanted charges on your account.
  • Tech support scams: The scammer might try to convince you that your computer has a virus and needs immediate fixing for a fee.

Even if you don’t engage with the message, answering a robocall can lead to more calls as scammers mark your number as active. If you fall victim to a scam, you could lose money through fraudulent charges or by paying for unnecessary services.

What to do if you answer a robocall

  • Don’t engage: Avoid pressing any buttons or speaking to a live operator.
  • Hang up immediately: Don’t waste time listening to the message.
  • Report the call: Report the number to the FTC and your phone carrier.
  • Block the number: If your phone allows it, block the number to prevent future calls.

How to block robocalls?

How to stop robocalls on iPhone

To block a number on your iPhone:

  1. Go to the Phone app and select “Recents”
  2. Find the number you would like to block
  3. Tap the blue “i” inside a circle to the right of the number
  4. Next, scroll down, find “Block this caller,” and tap on it
  5. Tap on the option “Block contact” on the message which pops up

To make yourself unavailable to all numbers that are not on your Contacts list:

  1. Go to “Settings” and select the option “Phone”
  2. Find and toggle the “Silence unknown callers” so it displays as green

How to stop robocalls on Android

To block a number on your Android device:

  1. Open the Phone app from the home screen
  2. Locate the tab “Recent” and tap on it
  3. Find the number you want to block, tap on it, and then tap the “i” in a circle
  4. Locate the “Block” button and confirm by hitting “Block” in the pop-up message

To block unknown numbers on your Android device:

  1. Open the Phone app from the home screen
  2. Locate three dots and tap on them to open a drop-down menu
  3. Select “Settings” from the list
  4. Tap on “Block numbers”
  5. Switch on the “Block unknown callers” so it displays as green

How to report robocalls?

If you receive unwanted robocalls, report them to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov. This includes situations where your number is spoofed, blocked, or labeled as spam. For complaints about telemarketing fraud or violations of the National Do Not Call Registry, contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at reportfraud.ftc.gov. If you receive a robocall claiming to be from the IRS, report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at www.tigta.gov.

How to get off a robocall list?

Register your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry at donotcall.gov or (888) 382-1222 to reduce telemarketing robocalls. However, this won’t stop scams or other types of robocalls.

To further reduce unwanted calls, consider call-blocking or call-labeling services. These are often offered by your phone carrier. Apple and Google phones also have built-in features and apps to manage unknown callers, like the iPhone’s “Silence Unknown Callers” feature.

For more resources on stopping robocalls and texts, check the extensive list provided by the FCC.

What is the difference between robocalls and spam calls?

While the terms robocalls and spam calls are often used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between them:

  • Technology: All robocalls are made using an autodialer, while spam calls can be made manually or with an autodialer.
  • Intent: Robocalls can be for legitimate purposes, while spam calls are always malicious or unwanted.
  • Legality: Robocalls can be legal or illegal, depending on their purpose and content, while spam calls are generally illegal.

There is a significant overlap between robocalls and spam calls, as many robocalls are used for spam. However, not all robocalls are spam (e.g., appointment reminders), and not all spam calls are robocalls (e.g., manually dialed scam calls).


Robocalls are a persistent and pervasive problem that affects millions of people worldwide. While they may seem like a minor annoyance, their impact can be significant, causing financial losses, emotional distress, and undermining trust in essential communication channels. By understanding the technology behind robocalls, their legal implications, and the strategies for combating them, we can take steps to protect ourselves and minimize their negative effects.

The fight against robocalls is a collective effort, requiring cooperation between individuals, businesses, and government agencies. By working together, we can create a safer and more secure communication environment for everyone.


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