How to block those spammy, scammy phone calls


cartoon image of man yelling "don't cal me"

By 2019, nearly half the calls made to cell phones will be fraudulent, claims a recent report by First Orion, a phone and data transparency solution provider. This is a huge increase. In 2017, about 4% of cell phone calls were scammy. By 2018, that number had grown to almost 30%. And the upward trend continues, thanks in part to new dirty tricks like “neighborhood spoofing”, in which a scammer spoofs the area code and prefix of the caller dialed, to increase the likelihood of getting an answer.

It’s pernicious, it’s annoying, and it seems like the bad guys are always one step ahead of the technological solutions deployed to end their schemes.

Case in point: third-party blocking apps only blacklist known spam numbers. While this is useful (and while the companies offering this service update the master list of bogus numbers regularly), these apps won’t protect you from spoofed calls, which generally originate from legitimate phone numbers that have been temporarily taken over by scammers.

The good news is that phone manufacturers and cellular service providers, in collaboration with government regulators and third-party privacy and security companies, are rolling out new tools to help you keep your phone as free of spam as possible.

So what can you do?

First, register your number with the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call list.
You’ll need to fill out some information and reply to a confirmation email to complete the process. This will also allow you to report spam numbers directly to the FTC, which helps everyone get rid of these annoyances. Reporting unwanted text messages is easier – just forward them to 7726 (SPAM). Most US carriers participate in this program, which uses the submitted information to blacklist numbers and to try to block future spammers.

Second, use your phone’s built-in capabilities to block as many known spammers as you can.

On Android devices, open the Phone app and select the number. Tap “More” and choose whether to block calls, block messages, or block everything originating from that number. You can also add numbers manually by going to Phone > More > Settings > Call Blocking > Block List.

On iPhone, go to Phone > Recent > Info > Block This Caller. At the confirmation message, choose “Block This Contact”.

Your cellular carrier also has services in place to help you win (or at least try to tie!) this frustrating game of spammer whack-a-mole. Note, however, that these services are generally NOT free.

Combining the power of the federal Do Not Call List with the technology sitting on your cell phone carrier’s servers with the software built into your phone can help you stem the tide of scammy calls.

There are also third-party apps available for all models of smartphones that will help you block unwanted calls, blacklist scam callers, and cut down on the annoyance of robocalls. Again, most of these are not free (except Hiya), and almost all require a renewing subscription. But if you’re inundated with these calls, they may very well be worth it. Check out apps like Hiya, Nomorobo, Robokiller, and Truecaller.

Or, if you are an iPhone user, you can deploy the nuclear option: go to Settings > Do Not Disturb > Allow Calls From > All Contacts. Then turn on Do Not Disturb. Permanently. Now you’ll only receive calls from numbers already in your contacts. Everyone else will be blocked. This is great, until it isn’t – you probably want that call about the new job to get through, and you never know when you’ll get an emergency call from an unknown number. So while not perfect, this technique will absolutely still your squalling iPhone if needed.

And if all else fails, you can just let those unrecognized calls roll right over to voicemail.

Time to winterize your home!


illustration of a home as a piggy bank

While the weather may still feel like summer, the chill of winter is just a few short months away. It’s time to think about winterizing your home. Getting your home ready for winter will not only keep you warmer but also put money in your pocket. The routine maintenance that makes your home cozier in the cold pays off year-round by boosting your home’s energy efficiency.

Start at your furnace. When was the last time you had it inspected? Some state utilities offer free yearly furnace check-ups. A well-maintained furnace will run more efficiently, pump out cleaner air, and save you money on heating oil or electricity.

Change or clean your furnace filters regularly. Disposable furnace filters are less efficient, but much more affordable, than new permanent electrostatic filters. Your budget and your furnace’s life-cycle are your best guides here on what to use.

Clean the ductwork. With the furnace taken care of, turn to your ductwork and vents. Keeping this system sealed and insulated in a big money-saver. Check for cracks and leaks in every part of the system. Patch and fill any gaps, especially in the common places where leaks tend to form, like connections at vents and registers. This is a great time to reassess the insulation in attics, too.

Does your home have a fireplace? They’re so cozy on a snowy winter night! But they aren’t exactly efficient. A wood-burning fireplace is lovely, but an energy-efficient wood stove or a gas fireplace insert might make more sense. In any case, keep your chimney clean! A sooty chimney is a common cause of house fires and easily avoided with preventive maintenance. If your fireplace isn’t used often, install glass doors and keep the flue shut – don’t let all that expensive warm air whoosh right up your chimney!

Check the plumbing. Now that you’ve seen to the furnace, ventilation system, and fireplace, turn to the plumbing. It’s easy to winterize your pipes – make sure they’re well-insulated with foam wrap or heating tape. Flush water from lawn sprinkler systems with compressed air. Turn off your water at the main and turn on all your outside faucets, allowing any water that has pooled in your pipes to drain. This will prevent expensive damage from frozen pipes. This is also a great time to address those annoying drips and leaks. A roll of Teflon tape and a pipe wrench will save you hundreds of dollars down the line.

Doors & windows. Congratulations! Now you’ve done the hard stuff! On to the detail work. Check your doors and windows, replacing weather stripping and caulking leaks as needed. A good tight seal keeps warm air in and cold air out. Consider upgrading to storm doors and better-insulating windows. If you have a gap beneath a door too wide to close with weather-stripping, simply rolling up a thick towel and wedging it in the gap will help keep the warm air where you want it. Plastic sheeting and sealing tape can be a great and inexpensive way to cover larger leaks until a permanent solution can be put in place.

One more thing: Next, turn down your thermostat and your hot water heater. You’ll never notice the few degrees difference, but your utility bills will sure reflect your thriftiness.

Speaking of thriftiness, making your home more energy-efficient might also qualify you for a tax credit! Check if any state incentives are available to you. There also are federal tax incentives available for upgrading to a more efficient heating system:

Winter, as they say, is coming. So take some preventative steps to stay warm, pocket the savings, grab a hot beverage, and then… maybe put on a sweater.

MA Emergency: Gas Explosion Resources


 

Many of our Massachusetts neighbors experienced a terrible crisis last night, complete with gas explosions, fires and mass evacuations.  We’ve compiled a few resources and links that might be of help.

Emergency Services: Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) – If you need non-emergency assistance or information, call 2-1-1. Call 9-1-1 for emergencies.

MA Red Cross: American Red Cross of Massachusetts. Also see:  Get Help Now and Find Open Shelters  If you or someone you know needs assistance, please call the Red Cross at (800) 564-1234. This hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Gas Utility: Columbia Gas MA

Lawrence MA: Lawrence MA Emergency Alert – info on evacuations & shelter

North Andover MA:North Andover MA Columbia Gas Leak Information

Andover MA: Andover MA Gas Leak Updates

Twitter is often a quick way to get emergency updates. Here are some relevant Twitter links:

If you need to file an insurance claim, contact your local independent insurance agent.
For your convenience, here’s a list of many of the top insurance companies with links to their online claim reporting resources.

Reminder: Hurricane season continues through November


hurricane seen from space

All eyes are on the eastern seaboard as Hurricane Florence bears down upon southern states. As of right now, forecasters don’t expect any direct impact on New England, but we’re all watching North Carolina and South Carolina, where widespread mandatory evacuations are in place, the largest peace time evacuation the country has seen. This is predicted to be a multiple-day prolonged flooding event with 12-foot storm surge. See the fascinating infographic on storm surges below, courtesy of CoreLogic.

If you have friends or relatives in affected areas or are just a storm tracker, here are a few resources: Tracking Hurricane Florence: The Weather Channel • Twitter • New York Times
The National Weather Service: Hurricane and Tropical Storm Watches, Warnings, Advisories and Outlooks • Hurricane Preparedness  • Red Cross: Hurricane Safety

While New England folks may dodge this bullet, remember that hurricane season lasts from June through November.

infographic on hurricane strom surge

Fraud roundup: Latest scams and a BBB Scam Tracker Tool


illustratin of fraudster tricking man with a money bagFraudsters spend all their waking hours concocting new and creative ways to separate you from your money. Even very smart people can be conned by smart criminals. It helps to be aware of common scams and get tips from experts on how to avoid them. Here’s a roundup of some recent scams that have hit our radar.

Home buyer scam: Scammers are tricking people out of enormous payments as they’re about to close on a house

“It’s a nightmare scenario for any homebuyer: the day before closing, a scammer manages to trick you into wiring your down payment to an offshore account. You lose your hard-earned money and you lose the house, and there’s no way you can get either one back.

That’s how some criminals have adapted the common “business email compromise” scam – so-named because it used to almost exclusively target businesses – to focus on individuals, especially people who are involved in a pending real estate transaction.”

Business scam: Hackers increasingly target reputations through reviews sites, experts say

“Hackers are increasingly attempting to extort companies and individuals by threatening severe reputational harm through online reviews sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, security experts tell The Hill.”
While internet extortion schemes are not new, their perpetrators now appear to be spamming sites where enough negative reviews can scare away firms’ customers.
“It is definitely an increase that we see — that more and more hackers are misusing the whole brand reputation and any type of review process to blackmail and extort companies,” Candid Wueest, a Symantec threat researcher based in Europe, told The Hill. “Of course the same would be harmful for anyone who has an online profile such as hotels — we’ve seen it with restaurants as well, like TripAdvisor or Yelp.”

Fake checks: New report calls fake check scams an “exploding epidemic”

“In a new report, the Better Business Bureau warns that regular checks, cashier’s checks, and money orders can all be forged. They found fake check fraud in reports “about employment frauds, sweepstakes frauds and smaller numbers in areas such as bogus grants, tech support, online purchase fraud, and rental frauds.”
“What they all have in common is that the check is counterfeit and just because the money is credited to your account does not mean the check is good,” Baker said.
… “If you get a check from somebody that is not a family member or in person or is not a payroll check, you need to wait at least two weeks to be sure that that check really is good and is not counterfeit,” Baker said.

Jobseeker scam: Phony Amazon Job Asks Applicants to Pay Upfront

It sounds like the perfect job: work at home, make thousands of dollars a month, and have a career with famous corporation. But this new twist on an employment scam is fooling victims into paying hundreds of dollars for a job at Amazon that doesn’t exist. Reports to BBB Scam Tracker about this con have increased steadily this summer.

Phone fraud: Worried About the I.R.S. Scam? Here’s How to Handle Phone Fraud

“I.R.S. scams, as well as other telefraud scams, are conducted by multiple groups and individuals operating out of India, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Jamaica and other countries,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “While this prosecution is a major success in disrupting the largest group of conspirators operating out of multiple call centers identified to date, other perpetrators of the IRS scam and similar scams remain at large.”

Fraud fighting tool from the BBB

The Better Business Bureau offers an online Scam Tracker that allows you to find out recent scams that are happening in your local area. Use a clickable map to find scams in your area that are occurring in real time. You can click for details of the scam, the business name that the scammer used, the victim’s zip code and the dollar amount of the loss. You can also report scams to help others out.

 

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