The Industry

How Android Is Fighting Spam Calls

Google is winning its battle against the growing number of robocalls.

The Android mascot fending off phone calls.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Android.

The problem of robocalling is getting worse. In April, robocall-blocking service YouMail estimated 3.4 billion such calls were made—900 million more that month than over the same period in 2017. The Federal Communications Commission is taking steps to fix the influx of robo spam, but thus far it’s only addressing part of the problem.* If it’s you on the receiving end of a seemingly never-ending barrage of maybe-scam robocalls, a fix couldn’t come soon enough. Some smartphone owners should get a respite from this issue, thanks to Google.

Google recently updated its stock Android Phone app to automatically filter out calls it’s identified as spam. The app will automatically send these calls straight to your voicemail, without ringing your device. This means that if the caller decides to leave a voicemail—the IRS is coming after you, and you better act fast!—you’ll still receive it. However, your day won’t be interrupted by your phone ringing or vibrating, and that’s certainly a boon. If you’re on an Android phone running Android 6.0 or later, you can turn this feature on by heading to the Phone app, tapping the settings icon in the upper right, then selecting Caller ID & spam. There, toggle on “Filter spam calls.”

The latest update is an upgrade over Google’s previous efforts at sorting spam. Until now, its Phone app has been able to identify suspected spam callers via Caller ID. When one of these known numbers called your number, your phone would ring, but the screen would turn red with the words “Suspected Spam Caller.” The screen also showed a reminder that you could swipe downward to reject the call. The new call-filtering feature is an extension of this work. And, according to Google, it is one of the Android Phone app’s most popular features. (For good reason: On Reddit, some users report they were getting as many as eight calls per day.) “It was a natural next step to improve the experience even further to reduce the distraction and hassle of receiving a spam call,” a Google spokesperson said.

Unfortunately, stopping one of the latest trends in spam and robocalling—neighbor spoofing—is still a work in progress. Neighbor spoofing happens when a caller modifies what displays on Caller ID, making a phone call appear local. The recipient is more likely to answer, since the call looks like it could be from a neighbor, colleague, or area business. These calls are more difficult to identify since they look like they could originate from a legitimate source, rather than a previously reported spam phone number.

Still, Google’s recent moves are more than what’s being done on competing operating systems. On iOS, your only option for filtering and identifying spam phone calls is to use a third-party app (many options are available on Android as well). While it’s not necessarily difficult to set up an app like Truecaller (free) or RoboKiller ($2.49/month), it is an extra hassle—and potentially an extra expense, depending on which app you download. Your other alternative is to use a service like T-Mobile’s Scam ID and Scam Block (free) or Verizon’s Caller Name ID ($2.99/month) to help filter and identify robocalls on your carrier’s end. Some phone-makers, such as Samsung, also offer built-in features for identifying and blocking spam calls.

Even with tools like these in place, defeating spam and robocalls feels like an uphill battle. While consumers are crying out against the practice, major corporations such as Sirius XM, Capital One, and Navient are lobbying the Trump administration to slacken its robocall policies. Proposed changes would mean that consumers would have no legal right to demand these kinds of incessant calls stop. But as the FCC continues to debate the issue of robocalls and spam, consumers have at least a few options for stemming the flow.

Correction, July 29, 2018: This piece originally misstated the number of robocalls that YouMail estimated were made in April 2018. It was 3.4 billion, not 3.4 million.