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Stopping robocalls: Do spam-blocking apps really work?

Unwanted robocalls may soon meet their match. (PxHere)
Unwanted robocalls may soon meet their match. (PxHere)(WJHG)
Published: Jan. 23, 2020 at 11:09 AM EST
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(1/23/20) - The Michigan Attorney General's Office says Michiganders got more than 1 billion robocalls to their phones in 2019.

By some estimates, Americans got close to 54 billion robocalls in all.

The federal government and many states are considering ways to crack down on these unwanted calls. But what can consumers do to avoid the scammers?

"They're annoying. Yeah, exactly. So how do you stop them? You have to be vigilant," said Professor Doug Witten, who leads the cyber defense program at Baker College in Flint.

Witten and his students stay on top of the latest tactics that hackers and scammers use, like spoofing a local phone number.

"It's coming from your area code and a number that you, 'Oh OK, it may be a local business' or something along those lines. That's how they do it," Witten said. "There's plenty of applications out there."

ABC12 tested four popular spam blocking apps for smartphones: PrivacyStar, Robokiller, Hiya, and Truecaller. All are free to download.

"Some of them have basic free service. Others are a paid, either monthly or yearly subscription," said Army veteran and cyber defense student Michael Watts.

He dove into how the spam-blocking apps work, which all rely on a database of known robocall numbers reported by users.

"They will take that master list and match it against the phone number that's being reported to your phone, and if it's on that list, then they'll block it," Watts said.

But there are some key differences between the apps, so we are ranking them based on their features.

Coming in at No. 4: Truecaller.

The app identified spam calls with categories, but didn't identify local area codes as potential spoofing calls like other apps. It charges $2.99 a month or $26.99 a year.

Coming in at No. 3: PrivacyStar.

This app has the lowest subscription rate at $2.99 a year. The app allows users to customize what type of calls they want blocked and tells them whether a call is likely a scam.

Coming in at No. 2: Hiya.

Hiya offers free basic services of identifying what type of scammer may be calling with clear categories and labels, like spoofing and telemarketers.

But users can pay up to $24.99 a year for its premium services. Hiya also shows how many spam numbers are in its database.

Coming in at No. 1: Robokiller

Watts said Robokiller has some entertainment value for users while protecting them from scam calls.

"Because it will actually keep the caller on the line and it will mess with them," he said.

Robokiller is the only app tested that gets "revenge" on the scammer, using voice recognition software to answer the call and respond to the person on the line.

Robokiller claims it blocks 90% of robocalls. Users can try it free for a week, then pay $3.99 a month or $29.99 a year.

But the real question is, are these apps worth it?

"I would say that it is worth it depending on what you do, what your business is. So if you're receiving a lot of customer calls and you want those calls, maybe not. But if you're a private individual and you're constantly getting these calls, it's totally worth it," Watts said.

Witten said the best way to protect against scammers besides the apps is to not answer unfamiliar numbers and never give out personal information.

"If nobody fell for it, they'd be out of business. But there's always people falling for it, and that's the horrible thing," Witten said.

Witten said also take the time to put numbers on the federal Do Not Call List, even though that only applies to telemarketers who follow the law -- and not all do that.

Michigan also has a hotline number where residents can report scam calls at 1-877-765-8388, or they can be reported to the Attorney General's Office website. Click on Related Links next to or below this article.

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