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Taking Arms Against a Sea of Robocallers

Against sound advice, a frustrated consumer tries to outsmart robocallers.

Key points

  • U.S. consumers fielded nearly 4 billion robocalls a month in 2020.
  • Those with perfectionistic tendencies might struggle to control robocalls. A suggested strategy is do not answer and let them go to voicemail.

The other day I received a phone call from a place with a tantalizing, evocative name: Alhambra.

Immediately I thought of castles in Spain, and I was sorely tempted to pick up the phone.

Perhaps this was my Prince Charming, having finally located me after years of searching the globe for his one true love.

Alas, I knew it was just a robocall, so I sadly let it ring until the caller gave up.

Other recent robocalls have (allegedly) come from locations as far-flung as Bristol, Rhode Island; San Mateo, California; New Albany, Indiana; and a place with the bucolic, yet faintly menacing, name of Bulls Gap, Tennessee.

Copyright © 2021 by Susan Hooper
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Source: Copyright © 2021 by Susan Hooper

I was pretty sure my Prince Charming wasn’t living in any of those locales, so I didn’t answer those calls, either.

Years ago, a friend who noticed my perfectionist tendencies encouraged me to “never worry about things you can’t control.” I saw his point, and since then, I have tried to follow his advice.

Still, I can’t help thinking I should have control over my cell and landline phone numbers and how they are used. And I am old-fashioned enough to think those numbers should be used only by people I have given them to—not by an endless parade of anonymous con artists.

It is only marginally comforting to know that nearly all Americans with phones likely share my frustration with multiple daily robocalls.

Even the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, has been plagued by them.

In a statement about the problem on the commission’s website, she is quoted as saying, during an FCC meeting, “I’m a consumer, too. I receive robocalls at home, in my office, on my landline, on my mobile. I’ve even received multiple robocalls sitting here on this dais. I want it to stop.”

The FCC noted in its statement the dismaying fact that U.S. consumers fielded nearly 4 billion robocalls a month in 2020. That’s nearly 48 billion robocalls a year—a mind-boggling number.

Imagine how many pressing world problems could be solved if all those callers focused their energy on serving humanity instead of scamming and cheating us.

Despite my friend’s long-ago advice, I have not been willing to shrug my shoulders and passively cede control of my phone numbers to the robocallers. The steps I have taken may be ineffective, but they at least give me the satisfaction of knowing I am fighting back.

For example, I seldom answer my cell phone, and I also disabled its voicemail function. I miss hearing voicemails from family and friends, but I don’t miss having to delete two or three robocall messages a day.

A few months ago, my irritation with robocalls invading my landline (and yes, I still have one) led me to try another retaliatory tactic: I began answering the calls in French.

I studied French for four years in high school and two years in college. I wouldn’t presume to say I am fluent now, decades after my lessons ended. But I felt I had more than enough French to talk back to a robocaller.

I hit upon the handy phrase, “Bonjour! Qui est là?” (“Good day! Who is there?”) as my opening gambit.

I also spoke in a rapid-fire singsong, dripping with Gallic condescension, that I hoped would confuse and intimidate any human at the other end of the call.

For several weeks, I had fun with this approach. I got so I looked forward to incoming robocalls; I viewed them as a chance to brush up on my French while taking mild revenge on those total strangers who were invading my privacy and disturbing my peace.

Some callers just hung up instantly. One or two intrepid souls tried to speak to me in English, but stalled when I replied, tersely, “Je parle français. Parlez-vous français?” (“I speak French. Do you speak French?”)

One caller switched to Spanish, but he floundered when I replied emphatically, “Pas español. Français.” (“Not Spanish. French.”)

When I informed another caller—in French—that I would be speaking in French, not English, she said, slowly, “OK. I’ll make a note of that.” Before I hung up, I naturally felt compelled to say in reply, “Merci!”

As I recalled from a trip I made to France years ago, the French may be intimidating, but they do have exquisite manners.

My attempt to foil my robocalls with my language-arts skills was fun, in its own way, but I can’t say that it did anything to lessen the volume of incoming calls.

And one day, I was surprised to play back a landline voicemail and find that a robocaller had left a message in rapid-fire Spanish. It seemed she was attempting to beat me at my own game.

I was already pondering whether to rethink my strategy when I read a piece by New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

Gail Collins is also frustrated by robocalls, and she quoted a consumer advocate who begged us to never answer a robocall.

This made me think that my Fun With French strategy might not be the best approach—a supposition that was supported by the FCC’s robocalls statement.

First on the commission’s list of nine consumer tips is this admonition: “Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. Let them go to voicemail.”

“Oh well, OK,” I thought to myself (in English). “I will do my best to restrain myself.”

The FCC says it has made combatting robocalls “a top consumer priority,” but I doubt relief will be coming any time soon. And I am not enjoying receiving multiple robocalls a day on my landline without being able to fight back verbally.

A few days ago, I remembered that I also studied German for three years in high school. I know it’s wrong, but nonetheless I wonder if it’s time to start answering these annoying robocalls with a crisp, no-nonsense, quietly threatening “Guten Tag.” (“Good Day.”)

Hope springs eternal, after all—especially where retaliating against robocalls is concerned.

Copyright © 2021 by Susan Hooper