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What are Robocalls?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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Robocalls are loosely defined as any telephone calls that are made automatically with recorded messages. Most robocalls involve either political parties urging people to vote or advertisements for products and services. This has been a relatively effective way to affect public opinion with a fairly low cost, making the approach quite popular. It’s also possible to send robocalls with a certain level of anonymity, which has led to some abuses, especially in political campaigns. Many people find robocalls to be annoying, and in some places, laws have been passed to generally curb and restrict their use.

During political campaigns, robocalls are often a central part of a candidate’s strategy. Members of political parties will use various methods to develop call lists which target certain demographics. For example, they may target single women with children, or men with manufacturing jobs. The messages in the robocalls will then be tailored to that particular audience in an attempt to persuade them to vote for one candidate or another.

Robocalls are formatted in many different ways. Sometimes the caller may deliver the message as a personal entreaty from somebody with a similar background. For example, if the target was a single mother, the caller might be a woman, and she might start off by explaining her background and saying that she supports a particular political candidate, then continue with a message about why she holds these views. In some cases, the people delivering these messages may actually be real-life supporters with the backgrounds they describe, although actors are also used sometimes. Another common approach is to have a celebrity or other popular political candidate deliver the message.

There have been examples in the past of robocalling abuses. Sometimes robocallers go to great lengths to obfuscate the source point that the calls are coming from, and they may deliver lies or other controversial messages. In these cases, the callers may not be directly associated with the political candidate, and they might be hired by some outside interest group. This gives the candidate being promoted with these tactics a layer of incredibility.

These kinds of techniques, along with the potential annoyance factor of constant phone calls, have led to legislation to curb robocall abuses. For example, robocalls related to advertising are totally illegal in some places. Another common form of legislation is to require that the callers identify themselves and who they work for in the first line of the call's message.

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Discussion Comments

By bagley79 — On Jan 08, 2012

I had never given it a thought that some companies use actors when setting up their robocalls.

This must be why they sound so convincing on the phone. If you listen to the whole call, some of them can be very persuasive.

I would be curious to know what kind of laws have been passed to cut down on this activity. It seems like I get as many of them or more than I ever have.

I know many people no longer have a land line phone and probably don't get nearly the calls that I get. Most all the robocalls I get are on my home phone.

There have been many times I have been tempted to get rid of this phone just because of all the automated messages I receive on it.

By John57 — On Jan 07, 2012

My doctors office has a robocall system set up to remind you of your upcoming appointment. Usually this is made after regular business hours a few days in advance of the appointment.

More than once this has been a life saver for me, as I had completely forgotten about the appointment. Having a couple days notice gives me enough time to make sure I can arrange my schedule to make the appointment.

Some of these appointments are made months in advance, and I wouldn't want to have to reschedule and wait a long time to be seen.

By andee — On Jan 07, 2012

@julies - If I don't recognize the phone number or am not expecting a phone call from someone, I usually don't answer it.

If I am at home, I let my caller ID monitor the calls. Most of the calls on my cell phone are in my contact list, or I am expecting a call back on something.

We have been getting a huge number of political robocalls lately. Some of them will show on the caller ID they are a political call or have the specific candidates name listed.

I have noticed that many of them look like a regular local number with no other information given. Many of these have turned out to be political calls, so once I recognize the number I don't answer it.

Even though I might not answer the phone, it gets very frustrating hearing the phone ring so often and it ends up being one robocall after another.

By julies — On Jan 06, 2012

@shell4life - I have been getting more robocalls on my cell phone recently as well This has concerned me, because I didn't think this was allowed for cell phones.

I have put all of our phone numbers on the national 'Do Not Call' list, but wonder if something like political robo calls would qualify for this.

Since they are not trying to sell you a product or service, it may be legal for them to make these calls if you have a cell phone or are on the list.

Either way, I find it extremely annoying and get very frustrated when I answer the phone and it is a robocall.

By Oceana — On Jan 06, 2012

@cloudel – This is so true. I have had a couple of robocalls that ended up saving me money and trouble.

A couple of times, my credit card account has been hacked online. As soon as suspicious charges showed up on my account, I received a robocall informing me that I need to contact the credit card company if I did not make the purchases stated.

In both instances, my card number had been stolen somehow. Someone used it to buy gas and pay for a hotel in Colorado, which is far from where I live. If I hadn't received the robocall, who knows how long they could have gone on racking up debt for me?

By cloudel — On Jan 05, 2012

Some robocalls are helpful rather than annoying. I like being notified by a prerecorded message rather than a human that I have to converse with.

For example, I often call my prescription refills in to my pharmacy. Instead of wondering when they will be ready and making an unnecessary trip to the store, I simply wait for my robocall to let me know my prescription has been filled.

This is very helpful to me, because I live twenty miles from the pharmacy. It is highly inconvenient to be driving all that way for something that isn't even ready to be picked up yet.

By orangey03 — On Jan 04, 2012

@shell4life – When you register to vote, any information you write down goes on a public record. The county clerk in my area has the right to sell this information to politicians running for office.

So, politicians actually pay for voter information. They buy your phone number and whatever else you list about yourself.

However, I did hear that you can choose to keep your information private by paying a $5 confidentiality fee. This upsets me, because I believe that my phone number should not be up for sale, anyway. It seems to be the only way to avoid political robocalls, though.

By shell4life — On Jan 04, 2012

The best thing about robocalls is that you can hang up without seeming rude or hurting anyone's feelings. I used to find it hard to hang up on actual telemarketers, but I have no issue with hanging up on a robot.

As soon as I figure out that a robocall is an advertisement, whether political or some other kind, I stop listening. I think it is very rude to call people directly and fill their ears with unsolicited information. If I wanted to know about the topic, I would do my own research.

I also wonder how these people got my cell phone number. I thought those were fairly private.

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