I bet you had no idea that you just won $10,000! Or, that a new product was so revolutionary that a telemarketer felt the need to call you, unannounced, while you’re eating dinner with your family.
Even if they’re not always scams though, it’s beyond annoying to be bombarded with emails for products you have no intention of buying, gross adult-related products, or greasy financial schemes intended to siphon your bank account.
On the flip side, while the numbers are much lower for unwanted sales calls, telemarketers still make 148 million junk calls per day, which causes customers to file more than 18,000 complaints with the Federal Trade Commission each year. And despite how much consumers dislike sales calls, the telemarketing industry as a whole manages to rake in more than $500 billion annually!
If, like most consumers, you’re fed up with spam email and unwanted sales calls, the good news is that you have the power to change the situation. But how to go about it? That’s exactly what we’ll discuss in this article.
To get a good handle on the situation, we’ll need to start from the beginning.
Part 1: Why Do We Get Spam and Telemarketing Calls in the First Place?
Spam emails and telemarketing calls can seem like they’re coming from every possible direction, and generally involve products and companies you’ve never even heard of—much less done business with. So how do these companies get ahold of your information?
How Spammers Get Your Email Address
Companies You Do Business With
Nonetheless, when you purchase a product online or over the phone, if a company distributes your information to another (who can then distribute as they like, and so forth), it becomes an exponential problem. Which is why you’ll receive so many random offers from unheard-of companies.
Out of all the methods companies use to get your information, willingly handing it over is perhaps the biggest—or at least the most popular legal method. But there is one method that’s becoming even more popular, and it’s anything but legal.
Leaked Account Databases
According to HowToGeek, leaked account databases have quickly become the easiest way for spammers to get ahold of your email address. Think it doesn’t happen often?
Generally, these hackers will publically release all the email addresses they steal, or in some instances, will sell off their lists to the highest bidder.
Scraping the Internet
Have you ever browsed a website and found an email address that looked something like fred [at] gmail dot com? Probably, because it’s fairly common. But why do people do this?
Similar to how Google crawls and indexes the web to provide us with more accurate search results, spammers can search billions of websites and “scrape” plain text email addresses (e.g. email@example.com) from them in an instant.
So, by masking email addresses in this fashion, these site owners are attempting to prevent their information from ending up on a spammer’s list. This doesn’t always work though, because many companies will just guess different email addresses until they find a valid one!
Clicking Where You Shouldn’t
Finally, spammers can confirm your email address when you click on links or download images contained in the emails they send. Yes, this is kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario, since they technically already have your information.
But by simply opening one of these emails, you’re confirming that this is an active email account (remember, many companies just guess). From here, you can probably expect to start receiving a whole lot more spam.
Pro tip: This is why most popular email clients don’t automatically download images contained in correspondence.
Now, let’s move to how your phone number lands in the hands of telemarketers.
How Companies Get Your Phone Number
Providing Your Phone Number, Just about Anywhere
Do you sign up for loyalty cards at grocery stores and other retailers? Is your phone number listed in your social media profile? Have you filled out any type of form, whether online or off, at any time?
If so, these are all methods that companies can use to harvest your phone number. And like we learned in the previous section, these companies are then free to do as they please with this information.
Think only disreputable companies do this? Even credit bureaus sell your information, not to mention some charities!
Similar to how companies will crawl the web looking for email addresses, they’ll also scrape the web looking to dig up phone numbers. This can include different websites, social media profiles, public records, and more.
What’s more, companies can capture your phone number any time you dial an 800, 888, or 900 number using technology called automatic number identification.
Speaking of automatic processes, many companies use automated dialing technology to calculate every possible phone number combination, and then call each one.
Then, if you (or your voicemail) pick up, they know it’s a valid number. From there, your information could be used internally or sold to other companies.
After reading all this, you’ve got a solid handle on some of the most common methods companies use to obtain your phone number and email address. But how can you prevent them from getting your information in the first place? And if you can’t, how can you put and end to the spam and telemarketing calls?
Part 2: How to Slow the Flood of Spam and Telemarketing Calls
Are you expecting to completely put an end to unwanted emails and phone calls? If so, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Why?
While the tips below can definitely help you minimize the amount you receive, you’ll never be able to completely eliminate spam and telemarketing calls. This is because, as we learned in the first section, there are just too many factors outside of your control.
With this said, let’s talk about real solutions. Again, we’ll start by talking about email.
4 Quick Tips for Minimizing Spam
#1: Use Your Spam Filter
One of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce your spam (or at least reduce how often it lands in your inbox) is by turning on your email account’s spam filter.
Regardless of who your email is through, these filters work by identifying if the sender is legitimate based on their email address, as well as by what the email contains. This includes the text, the words it uses, how it uses these words, and more.
In addition to the filter’s built-in settings, you’ll also be able to choose how sensitive it is. Just remember that the more aggressive your settings are, the more likely it will be that legitimate emails are snagged in the filter.
Finally, if (or rather, when) some spam does sneak its way into your inbox, be sure to mark it as such. This can help “train” the filter to be more accurate in the future.
#2: Never Interact with Spam
No matter what your filter settings might be, spam is sure to eventually end up in your inbox. Don’t open it. Instead, flag it as spam and improve your filter’s performance.
Accidentally click on it? Close the email as quickly as possible. And never, ever click on any of the links it contains, download any of the images, or reply to the sender.
Unless you’re sure that it’s a legitimate company, this includes attempting to unsubscribe, which often just lets spammers know your account is live. Sure, according to the US CAN-SPAM Act, companies must provide you with the ability to unsubscribe (among other things), but many unscrupulous ones simply ignore the law since they’re unlikely to get caught.
#3: Monitor Where Your Email Address Appears
We talked in Section 1 about how it’s nearly impossible to prevent your email address from ending up in the hands of spammers, but you can certainly minimize how often it occurs.
Again, don’t ever list your plain text email address (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) anywhere online. Also, be very careful about who you give your email address to when filling out different forms or applications.
Pro tip: If you frequently sign up for different programs online (such as shopper’s reward cards), set up an email address specifically for this. You’ll be able to reap the rewards, without worrying about spam in your everyday account!
Be savvy about the companies you do business with. If it’s super important to you, you can even read all of their privacy policies to learn whether or not they’re selling your information.
#4: Understand that Leaks Happen
We’ve mentioned it several times already, but it’s worth mentioning again: Even if you had a perfect track record and followed all of the tips above to the letter, some companies are bound to have their customers’ information leaked. This means you’ll never be able to completely eliminate spam.
But you can be proactive and learn if you’re information has been leaked by visiting sites like haveibeenpwned.com.
4 Tips for Giving Telemarketers the Dial Tone
Like with email, you almost certainly won’t be able to completely stop unwanted sales calls. But there are several you can use to drastically reduce the number.
#1: Don’t Give Out Your Phone Number
Or, when you need to complete a form or application, simply enter a fake phone number. As much as 78% of internet users have done this at some point.
Yes, this is a solid method for preventing telemarketing calls, but if we’re being honest, it’s not very practical. After all, there are plenty of instances when it’s good for a company to have your phone number on file (such as when sending a package). And if they don’t have your number, it could end up causing more problems than it solves.
Instead, we’d recommend starting with this next tip.
#2: The National Do Not Call Registry
Perhaps the fastest, easiest, and most effective method of reducing the amount of telemarketing you receive is by listing your number on the National Do Not Call Registry.
There, you’ll be able to register your home and/or mobile numbers, completely free of charge. After your information has been on the Registry for 31 days, telemarketers will no longer be able to call you unsolicited.
Here’s the catch: If you purchase a product through a company, you’ve technically solicited them. As such, while the Registry applies to most third-party telemarketers, the company you purchased from may be able to call you as often as they like.
Here are several more exceptions and loopholes related to the Do Not Call list.
Pro tip: Outside of the protection provided by the DNC Registry, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) states that telemarketers:
- can’t call before 8am or after 9pm,
- hide who they are,
- or call using a pre-recorded message.
As with the US CAN-SPAM Act we discussed earlier, the TCPA’s guidelines are violated on a daily basis by telemarketers, as it’s essentially impossible to enforce everywhere. And even if companies are caught, the maximum fine is $500, so it’s often more cost-effective for them to take the risk.
#3: Blocking Calls
If you have a landline, most carriers offer their customers some sort of call blocking (also known as call rejection) service. The specifics can vary between companies, but most offer call blocking for specific numbers (if you know a certain number belongs to a telemarketer), as well as for anonymous calls.
In today’s world, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that you own a landline, so how can you prevent sales calls on your mobile phone?
Again, the options available to you will largely depend on the carrier you choose, the brand and model of phone you have, if your phone is jailbroken, and whether you use a third-party tool such as Google Voice or TrapCall.
As with landlines, most cell phone carriers provide you the ability to block specific or anonymous numbers (some, such as AT&T, might charge an additional fee for this service). Some cell phone manufacturers (Nokia and Samsung come to mind) also offer built-in call blocking functionality.
Outside of this, you can download different call blocking apps and filters to your smartphone (it seems like Android users generally have more options than iOS users), enlist the help of third-party companies like Nomorobo, or even install a silent ringtone.
Pro tip: Blocking calls isn’t a surefire method since less-scrupulous telemarketing companies can use caller ID spoofing to display a fake number on your phone. This is changed after every call, so if the company contacts you again, it won’t be from the same number—essentially rendering call blocking useless.
#4: Sternly Request To be Removed from Their List
Eventually, whether you like it or not and despite all the tips above, there’s going to come a time when a telemarketer manages to get you on the phone.
When this occurs, immediately say these exact words: “Take me off your list.” This will clearly indicate to the telemarketer that you’re not interested in what they’re selling or anything else they might be selling in the future.
Don’t hang on while they complete their sales presentation, get mad and start berating them, lie about who you are, or hang up. Simply repeat the 5 words above.