Phone harassment is annoying at best (if your phone rings off the hook with spam robocalls) and dangerous at worst (if a caller is threatening your safety).
Harassing phone calls are no small matter: According to YouMail, there were more than 58 billion robocalls placed in 2019—over 10 billion more than in the previous year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 3.6 million complaints about robocalls and 1.4 million complaints about nuisance callers in 2019.
As a consumer, what recourse do you have? Read on to learn how to report harassing phone calls.
What is a harassing phone call?
A harassing phone call is any unwanted call that is meant to threaten, intimidate or annoy the recipient. This includes everything from annoying robocalls to personal calls that threaten your safety or use obscene language.
Phone harassment can be a “precursor to recipients being put in physical danger,” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League. Beyond that, harassing calls “can very easily turn into fraud, including identity theft.”
There are several laws that protect consumers against different types of phone harassment. While telemarketing calls are generally legal, sales companies must follow certain rules laid out in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). For example, they must have your written consent to robocall and have to provide an opt-out during each call.
Similarly, telecommunications laws within the U.S. Code prohibit obscene or harassing phone calls, which may include lewd language, direct threats or intimidating behavior. Phone harassment also includes callers who refuse to identify themselves.
Unfortunately, these laws will not prevent bad actors from calling and harassing you by phone. You may need to take steps to block and report these events if they happen to you.
Different types of harassing phone calls
Phone harassment can fall into a few categories, from annoying to downright dangerous.
- Robocalls: Robocalls are automated calls that play prerecorded messages. Some robocalls come from legitimate telemarketing firms, but others are made by scam artists trying to trick you into giving up personal information. Telemarketers are supposed to abide by consumer protection rules—scam robocalls are straight-up illegal.
- Restricted and blocked calls: Carriers give consumers the option to hide or disable caller ID, meaning the recipient can’t see the incoming caller’s number. You’ll see “blocked,” “unknown,” “restricted” or “private” pop up instead. Telemarketers, debt collectors and scammers use restricted calling to hide their identities in hopes recipients will pick up. This tactic may even be employed by prank callers and stalkers who want to intimidate individual targets.
- Spam text messages: Spam texts are like spam robocalls—unwanted contact via text message. Not all unsolicited texts are illegal, but ones that are include spam messages sent without your express consent and those made via autodial. Again, like robocalls, spam texts can range from annoying marketing ploys to illegal scams.
- Direct threats of physical violence or harassment: This type of call is a little more personal, meaning it’s less likely to be a mass message directed at hundreds of thousands of people. Calls that include lewd or obscene requests and repeated calls that consist only of threats or other intimidating behavior (such as silence or heavy breathing) are several examples of illegal phone harassment directed at individuals.
What to do to try and block harassing robocalls
You can block some harassing robocalls by adding your phone number to the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. This lets telemarketers know that you don’t want to receive unsolicited calls. It’s free, and signing up via donotcall.gov is quick and easy.
Of course, putting your number on the Do Not Call list won’t eliminate robocalls. Political campaigns, survey companies, charity organizations and debt collectors can still legally call you. And companies that are spamming you with illegal robocalls could care less if your number is registered with the FTC.
So while this is one way to block phone harassment, it isn’t a catchall.
Other methods to block unknown numbers
If you’re still getting spammed by unknown callers after registering your number with the FTC, there are a few other steps you can take:
- Contact your phone service provider. All the major cellphone carriers offer some level of call blocking for their customers. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have basic spam detection and blocking capabilities at no extra cost and premium features available with a monthly subscription. Sprint’s caller ID service requires a monthly fee.
- Use a third-party call-blocking app. Call- and text-blocking apps come with a variety of features at a range of price points, but you’ll likely want something that—at the very least—allows you to block or whitelist phone numbers. Cheaper (and free) versions generally have fewer features and more ads. We’ve examined some of the best call blocking apps for your smartphone if you’re looking for one.
- Enable built-in blocking features on your smartphone. Both iPhone and Android have native call-blocking options. These features allow you to blacklist only numbers that call you directly—so while it won’t limit calls from spoofed numbers, it can minimize more targeted harassment.
How to report harassing calls to police
There is no hard-and-fast rule about when to report phone harassment to the police, according to Breyault. But recipients should notify law enforcement sooner rather than later about threats—especially if a caller even once exhibits obscene or harassing behavior, like making lewd or indecent comments or using silence and heavy breathing to intimidate the recipient.
If you do report harassing calls to the police, Breyault recommends making note of the time and date(s) of the calls, whether the caller is male or female, a description of their voice, and the approximate age of the caller. If the number isn’t spoofed, law enforcement may be able to track down the caller.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that the police can do to stop phone spam and robocalls.
When it comes to phone harassment, prevention offers some of the best protection. Blocking calls can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, so take these basic steps to try and stop harassment before it even starts:
- Don’t pick up. If you get a call from a blocked or unfamiliar number, ignore it. Answering lets scammers know that your line is active and gives them an opportunity to interact with you. If the call is important, the person will try again or leave a voicemail.
- Hang up immediately. If the caller harasses you or asks for sensitive information—or if it’s a telemarketing robocall—hang up. Don’t engage or answer any questions.
- Protect your phone number. Don’t give out your phone number if you don’t have to. The more places and people that have this info, the more opportunity for bad actors to potentially get a hold of it and use it to harass you. If you experience direct threats, consider switching to an unlisted number.
- Use a reverse phone search to try and look up a caller’s identity. Don’t automatically trust callers are who they claim to be, especially if they ask for personal information or make threats. A reverse phone lookup could help provide more information about the caller.
- Submit a complaint to the FCC. Notifying the Federal Communications Commission may not have an immediate impact for you, but it helps the agency see patterns and trends in phone harassment and identify perpetrators.
You don’t have to resign yourself to being harassed by phone. Take steps to block and report callers and to protect your phone number from scammers.