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How to stop scam and nuisance phone calls

Bothered by unwanted calls from telemarketers or scammers? Get tips for staying off their radar.

man taking a call on his mobile at home
Last updated: 18 August 2023


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Need to know

  • Nuisance calls remain common, with phone-based scams causing the highest losses last year
  • There are steps you can take to cut down on calls from telemarketers and other cold callers, but it's difficult to stop all scammers
  • Sign up to the Do Not Call Register, ask callers to stop contacting you and get to know the signs of a phone scam

Talking on the phone may not be as necessary as it once was, thanks to the ability to communicate and organise our lives online, but it's still one way people can reach us, even if we don't want them to.

Like it or not, there's still the chance you could receive a call at any time from someone trying to sell you something, get your opinion for research or just rip you off.

Unfortunately, short of doing away with a phone altogether, there's no way you can completely stop all these irritating interruptions, but there are steps you can take to limit how many calls you'll receive.

How common are nuisance phone calls?

The good news is that, according to statistics, both telemarketing and phone-based scams are becoming less common.

Reports of scams conducted over the phone to the ACCC's Scamwatch fell 56% in 2022 compared to the year before, with SMS becoming the favoured contact avenue for scammers.

Despite its declining prevalence, the impact of phone-based scams continues to be felt. These scams have caused the most losses of any scamming method so far this year.

When it comes to more legitimate requests for your attention, CHOICE research in 2021 found 54% of mobile phone users had received a marketing call, but these too are seemingly becoming less common.

We're all fairly well attuned to the scammers at the moment ... if we don't recognise the number, then generally we don't pick it up

Australian Communications Consumer Action Network CEO Andrew Williams

Figures from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) show the amount of phone numbers that telemarketers are cross-checking against its Do Not Call Register (DNCR) – something they're required to do by law – has been falling almost every year for a decade.

Andrew Williams, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), argues households switching from communal landline phones to personal devices has combined with growing fears of scams to limit the effectiveness of commercial cold calls.

"We're very much a mobile-only consumer base now," he says. "And we're all fairly well attuned to the scammers at the moment, [so] if we don't recognise the number, then generally we don't pick it up."

How to stop unwanted phone calls

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to stop calls from scammers – there are, however, ways you can identify these calls and report them to the authorities.

Luckily, there are effective actions you can take to reduce telemarketing or other legitimate but unwanted calls you might be receiving.

1. Join the Do Not Call Register

The ACMA's Do Not Call Register (DNCR) is a good first port of call if you want to cut down on telemarketing calls.

The register currently holds over 12 million numbers that telemarketers must make sure they're not including in their callouts, unless the person with the number has consented to being contacted.

You can add a phone number to the register for free, as long as it's predominantly used for personal and not business calls.

Be aware that it may take up to 30 days for calls to decrease, as this is the maximum time telemarketers can take to recognise a registered number.

Exemptions to the register

Even if you are on the register, a company can keep calling you if you've given them express or inferred consent to do so.

Organisations such as polling research companies, charities and political groups can also call numbers on the register, as long as it's not for a commercial purpose.

But even these groups have to follow certain regulations and can only call at certain times of day (and not on public holidays) and must provide specific information about who they are representing.

2. Ask to be taken off the caller's list

If you're on the DNCR, but are still receiving calls from telemarketers, there's a chance they're acting on consent you've given in the past.

Remember you can withdraw this at any time, so tell the person on the other end of the line that you would like to be taken off their list.

You can also use this approach if you're receiving unwanted calls from a charity – find their contact details via the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission register and ask them to stop calling and not to pass on your details to other charities or marketing firms.

For research or polling calls, the Research Council, the peak body for market research in Australia, has a Code of Professional Conduct which says members shouldn't reach out to participants for research if they've asked not to be contacted, unless there are genuine research concerns.

Therefore, if you don't want to receive research calls, it's best to directly tell the caller in the first instance.

For any sort of unwanted call, you can also try blocking the number. But be aware that many companies are able to alter their caller IDs and may do so frequently.

Use your smartphone settings to block calls

Some smartphones now have a function that allows you to 'silence' calls from numbers that are not in your contacts or that you haven't called yourself recently, meaning your phone won't ring and the call will be diverted straight to your message bank.

Apple users can turn this function on in the settings section of their phone, but Android phones don't have this feature at the moment. Most Android phones do allow you to block all calls without a caller ID, but remember that nuisance callers might still use a caller ID when they contact you, especially if they're using a fake one.

Are telemarketers scammers?

The current heightened awareness of scams might make us treat all unexpected communications with suspicion, but not every cold call is criminal by default.

Telemarketing is when a person or business calls you and tries to sell, advertise or promote goods and services. 

While the quality of the good or service can vary, a legitimate telemarketer representing a reputable business won't be trying to steal your money or personal information. This is the objective of most fraudsters, who often try to do this by impersonating major brands, government agencies or law enforcement.

A legitimate telemarketer shouldn't mind if you want to verify their identity by calling them back to continue the conversation on a number you've found yourself. 

But a scammer will try to steer you away from doing this and push you to act quickly on their suggestions or demands, often by claiming your finances or personal information are at risk, or that you're facing arrest, or by presenting a limited-time investment opportunity.

Calls from people doing surveys for research or contact about a debt, appointment or product recall are not considered telemarketing and are not required to follow the same rules, such as cross-checking with the DNCR.

How scam and nuisance callers get your number

Some companies conducting telemarketing dial randomly or in a pattern, so come across your number by accident, while others may have got your number from your previous dealings with them or have had it shared with them by another company you've given your personal details to.

But these groups must check that your number isn't on the DNCR and that you haven't revoked any consent to being contacted by them before they call.

Neither charities nor research organisations have to check if your number is on the DNCR

Charities and research companies might have your number from previous contact you've had with them or if you've made a donation in the past, and market-research companies often use a random dialling technique. Charities have also been known to share some donor information which can result in cold calls.

Neither charities nor research organisations have to check if your number is on the DNCR.

Scammers, meanwhile, can get your information from a wide variety of sources, including data breaches, or may just be reaching your number at random. They're also under no obligation to check if you're on the DNCR, so being registered is unlikely to stop scam calls.

Are you unintentionally giving businesses permission to call you?

Telemarketers can bypass the DNCR and cold-call you if you've given them permission.

You may have provided what the industry calls 'inferred consent,' which occurs when something you do (being a customer of a business, for example) suggests that you would expect to receive their calls.

While this can be up for interpretation, at the end of the day, a business operating under this assumption has to respect any request you make for the marketing calls to stop.

Inferred consent occurs when something you do (being a customer of a business, for example) suggests that you would expect to receive their calls

Telemarketers can also contact you if you've specifically agreed to receive marketing calls, thereby giving 'express consent.'

ACCAN's Andrew Williams says you should keep an eye out for clauses in terms and conditions detailing this if you're concerned about being contacted unexpectedly.

"I reckon about 1% of the population would actually read the terms and conditions. We'll check that box when it comes up, and one of them may be giving our consent to receive marketing calls," he says.

How to complain about unwanted calls

If a telemarketer has broken the rules, perhaps by continuing to call you when you've asked them not to, ignoring the DNCR or calling at inappropriate times of day, you can report them to the ACMA.

The communications regulator often takes action against organisations not paying due diligence to the register, fining one company over $250,000 in 2021 for making calls to numbers on the DNCR.

If you've got a grievance with a charity, you can lodge a complaint with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and if you want to raise your concerns about research calls, contact the Research Society.

How to prevent and report scam calls

As noted previously, the DNCR and other protections are likely to be ignored by scammers.

If you are regularly getting suspicious calls from the same number, you can block it using your phone's settings, but be aware that scammers can use the same methods as legitimate companies to change their caller IDs.

Never provide any personal information or follow directions to transfer money or provide remote access to a computer over the phone

Therefore, it's a good idea to become familiar with classic scammer techniques, namely the sense of urgency or threat they try to instil in victims, and be aware that they will often try to impersonate high-profile brands or agencies.

If you're suspicious about a call purporting to come from a particular company or agency, arrange to call them back on a number you've found yourself. 

Never provide any personal information or follow directions to transfer money or provide remote access to a computer over the phone.

Report any scams to Scamwatch. Contact your financial institution immediately if you think you've given money to a scammer, and contact IDCare if you believe they've also got access to your personal information.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.