What to do about spam calls and texts

I rarely get spam calls or texts on my cell phone, but apparently I'm pretty lucky. A new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which my colleague Sam Wood writes about here, says that two-thirds of cellphone users report having gotten unwanted marketing calls, and that two-thirds of text users have gotten cellphone spam.

Even worse, more than 1 in 4 smartphone owners report getting unwanted sales or marketing calls "at least weekly," and a similar proportion of texters receive spam messages with that same alarming frequency.

The report, which you can read here, also says many cellphone owners experience problems with slow downloads and dropped calls - the latter a complaint that goes back to the early days of cellphone adoption and that, to be fair, is correlated with our increased expectations for service quality. Still, more than a third of smartphone users, and 28 percent of all cellphone owners, report suffering dropped calls "at least weekly." More than 1 in 10 suffer dropped calls at least once a day - which is probably how I'd answer the question regarding my AT&T iPhone service.

The Pew study offers a good opportunity to clarify one point: Most of those spam calls and texts are illegal. But unless you report them, the spammers will continue to act with impunity.

Three key points:

  1. If you've registered your cell number on the national Do Not Call registry established nearly a decade ago by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, telemarketing calls to it are illegal, with the usual handful of exceptions. (Want to register? Call 1-888-382-1222. But remember that registrations no longer expire.)
  2. Even if you haven't placed your number on the Do Not Call registry, automated "robo-calls" to it are illegal, anyway. The FCC says here that "it is unlawful for any person to make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with express prior consent) using any automatic telephone dialing system or any artificial or prerecorded voice message to any telephone number assigned to a paging service, mobile telephone service or any service for which the called party is charged for the call."
  3. Spam texts have been barred since 2005: The FCC says here that its rules "prohibit sending unwanted commercial email messages to wireless devices without prior permission."

Sadly, there's something of a cat-and-mouse game between the spammers and the government, and some potential mouse holes in the rules: For instance, the FCC says: "The FCC’s ban covers messages sent to cell phones and pagers, if the message uses an Internet address that includes an Internet domain name (usually the part of the address after the individual or electronic mailbox name and the '@' symbol). The FCC’s ban does not cover 'short messages,' typically sent from one mobile phone to another, that do not use an Internet address. Also, the FCC’s ban does not cover email messages that you have forwarded from your computer to your wireless device (but the FTC’s rules may restrict such messages)."

Want to fight back? Here's how. The FCC says to complain if you receive:

  • an unwanted commercial message sent to a wireless device; or
  • a telephone solicitation made to a wireless device for which the phone number is registered on the national Do-Not-Call list; or
  • any autodialed text message on your wireless device, or an unwanted commercial message to a non-wireless device from a telecommunications company or advertising a telecommunications company’s products or services.

You can file an FCC complaint using this online complaint tool. (Click on: "Telemarketing, Prerecorded Messages, Caller ID Spoofing, and Do-Not-Call.") You can also file by calling the FCC’s Consumer Center at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) (or 1-888-TELL-FCC for TTY). If you want to complain by mail, look here for instructions.