If your ears are ringing from pesky automated calls hawking everything from low-interest loans to vinyl siding, here’s how to get some peace and quiet.

By Jennifer King Lindley
Updated September 13, 2013

Is Deb from “cardholder services” calling you with a prerecorded message about an amazing offer—again? Join the club. In 2012 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fielded 2.26 million complaints about robocalls, those automated, computer-dialed phone calls that are a recurring annoyance of modern life. Sophisticated technology now allows companies to blast out thousands of calls a minute, cheaply, to people all over the country. That’s a lot of interrupted dinners. But you aren’t helpless. You just need to find out who is calling and the steps you can take to make them go away.

Who’s Calling: Legitimate Businesses

Companies are legally allowed to send robocalls to your landline as long as the calls are strictly informational: appointment reminders, flight cancellations, credit-card fraud alerts. However, they are not allowed to use robocalls to make sales pitches, unless you have given written permission (usually via website forms). What’s more, they cannot legally send robocalls to your cell phone without your consent.

In most cases, old-fashioned telemarketers (that is, actual human beings) are not allowed to call or text your cell phone without your permission, either. But according to federal rules, they can still make sales calls to your landline.

What you can do: If you aren’t sure whether or not you’ve given a company permission to call you, contact its customer-service department. The representative should be able to assist you in finding out—and adding you to the company’s do-not-call list, effective immediately. If a company makes a sales pitch when you’re on its do-not-call list, report it at donotcall.gov.

Who’s Calling: Political Groups, Charities, Researchers Conducting Surveys

These entities are legally permitted to place robocalls to your landline. That’s why political campaigns are such prolific robocallers, as anyone who has spent a not-so-quiet evening at home in late October knows. (A handful of states, including Wyoming and Arkansas, do prohibit or restrict political robocalls.) All these groups need your consent to call or text your cell phone.

What you can do: Campaigns often get phone numbers from voter-registration rolls, says Shaun Dakin, the founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, an anti-robocalling nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “So when you go to register or reregister, don’t give them your home- or cell-phone number or your e-mail address,” says Dakin. “Only your street address is required by law.” Getting repeated robocalls from a candidate and want him to stop? “Call the politician’s campaign headquarters and say, ‘If you robocall me, I will not vote for you,’” says Dakin. Also, you can add your name to the National Political Do Not Contact Registry (stoppoliticalcalls.org). This non-profit, nonpartisan service founded by Dakin will send your name to local and national political parties, candidates, and political-action committees and ask them to voluntarily remove you from their phone lists. While this may not create instant quiet, it is designed to send a message to politicians that robocalls are a turnoff. For charities, you can contact each one and ask not to be called. For surveys, you’re out of luck; just don’t pick up if you don’t recognize a number.

Who’s Calling: Scammers

If a robocall from a company that you’ve never heard of offers you a great insurance rate or a low-interest loan, beware. Such pitches are illegal and probably fraudulent. “A lot of the unsolicited robocalls that consumers receive are complete scams,” says Kati Daffan, an attorney for the FTC. And fraudsters have tricky ways to get you to pick up the phone: They sometimes use technology that allows them to fake their caller IDs, a practice known as “spoofing.” For example, the caller ID may look like a local cell-phone number.

What you can do: Let all calls with IDs that you don’t recognize go to voice mail. If you happen to answer a sales-telemarketing robocall, hang up immediately; don’t press a number. If you do, you’re signaling that you’re a live human being at a working number, which may result in more robocalls, says Daffan. Also, don’t give out personal information, even if you think the caller is a legitimate bank, say, checking on your creditcard activity. Instead, call back at a number you can verify from a bank statement or a company website, in case the call is bogus, says Katherine Hutt, the national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau in Washington D.C. Finally, report any information you have on dubious calls at donotcall.gov.

If annoying calls of any kind still get through, ask your phone-service provider about call-blocking services—for instance, blocking all “private” numbers, which are often used by solicitors. This, however, may result in additional fees. Blocking specific numbers from past robocallers may not be worth the cost, as scammers change numbers frequently, says Daffan. Another option: GoogleVoice’s free Internet-based phone service has a screening feature that asks callers to say their names before you pick up your home phone or cell phone; it’s a great option for people who miss listening to someone talk on their answering machine before picking up. To reduce robocalls and spam texts on your cell phone, you can try a free call-blocking app, such as Call Control, which maintains a blacklist of spam numbers reported by its users to block those calls. Sorry, Deb!