What Is a Restricted Call? (and How Do You Stop Getting Them?)

How do you react when your phone rings?  If most of your incoming calls are from friends or family, it’s usually a good thing (depending on the current state of your relationships, of course).  It’s different when your caller ID shows an anonymous call, whether the display reads “Restricted,” “Private Number” or “Unknown Caller.” 

Those can be scams, collection calls or simply surveys and marketing calls that you’d rather not take.  The problem, of course, is that you don’t know for sure until you answer. 

What Is a Restricted Call? 

Ordinarily, when you receive an incoming call, caller ID information comes along with it to identify the caller.   Unfortunately, with the rise of computer-based dialing, it becomes trivially easy for scammers to fake or “spoof” the caller ID system.  Instead of the caller’s real phone number, it shows you a number of the scammer’s choice — or perhaps even a legitimate government number. 

Restricted calls don’t go to even that degree of trouble.  They simply suppress or block the caller ID information, so you don’t know who the call is coming from. 

The recently enacted Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, the so-called “Robocall Bill,” increased penalties for scammers and made it easier to prosecute them.  It also (slightly) restricted the number and type of callers who can legitimately use caller ID masking.  That still leaves many legitimate and less-legitimate enterprises using the technology.

Are Restricted Calls Always from Scammers? 

A call isn’t necessarily from a scammer just because the caller ID information is blocked.  The TRACED Act left exemptions in place for various businesses, most notably the collections industry.  That’s partly due to the industry’s relentless lobbying, to be sure, but not entirely. 

The modern economy revolves heavily around credit and credit worthiness, and not only for obvious things like mortgages and credit cards.  Everyone from cellular carriers and cable companies to landlords and mom-and-pop retailers will face bad debts occasionally, and a credit-driven economy can’t work without effective collection tools.  You may not want to talk to them, but their calls are valid.

There are also perfectly legitimate reasons — and ways — for individual consumers, like yourself, to block your caller ID information for a specific call.  When trying to reconnect after an argument between family members, for example, it’s a way to buy time for a quick “it’s me, don’t hang up!”  It’s also a way to contact someone regarding an online classified without giving away your real phone number. 

How to See Blocked Numbers

There are several ways you can attempt to see the phone number of a call you’ve received, on a mobile or landline phone.  Some are provided directly by your telephone service provider, while others require you to do a bit more digging.  Once you have the number, you can use a service like Spokeo’s reverse number lookup to try and identify the caller.

Use *69 or Its Equivalent

One of the simplest options is to use the “return call” option on your phone, usually *69 on a landline or #69 on a mobile phone.  This will return the last incoming call you received.  Depending on the carrier, an automated voice may read the number to you first, or the call may simply dial.  Write down the number if you can.  One important “gotcha” to keep in mind: Some robocalls are made for the express purpose of checking that your number is in use, so this might cause a flood of new calls. 

Use Call Tracing, Where Available

Your provider may offer a call-tracing service, either free or for a modest fee.  You’ll be able to trace illegal or threatening calls by punching in a simple code, usually *57 on a landline or #57 on a mobile phone.

Check Your Call Logs

Your carrier maintains a log of your incoming and outgoing calls.  Those should be viewable on the carrier’s website once you’ve set up your account and logged in.  Often, the originating number will not be masked in your call log. 

Use an App

If those options fail, you can try a third-party app to pull back the curtain and show you who’s calling.  Depending on which OS you use, a quick search along the lines of “best call blocker Android” or “best call blocker iPhone” will give you plenty of options to research on the App Store or Play Store.  Most will show callers’ identities in real time and identify known scammers.

Just be sure to read the apps’ privacy statements carefully.  In the past, some haven’t been especially up-front about their capture of user data

Blocking Masked Calls

Once you’ve identified the callers behind the restricted calls you receive, you can make an informed choice about whether to block them.  If you use a landline phone, your service provider probably offers call-blocking services, which may be free or carry a small fee. 

Many of the apps used to intercept and unmask calls provide the option of blocking calls, as well.  You can also block calls directly from your phone.  On iPhones running iOS 7 or later, simply open the Phone app, select Recents, click the blue information circle on the caller you’d like to block, then scroll down to Block this Caller. You can also open up Settings, then Phone, and then Blocked Contacts to view the numbers you are already blocking.

In stock Android, you can also choose Phone and then Recents to block a number.  Many manufacturers of Android phones add features of their own, including call blocking, so check your user’s manual or search “block calls on [your phone]” to find your best option.  

The Bottom Line

The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act will eventually limit the flood of robocalls you receive, and it puts some limits on the legal use of call masking.  However, it’s only a partial measure.  Restricted calls won’t go away entirely, or at best it’ll take on a new form. 

In the interim, the combination of call-unmasking features and Spokeo’s reverse phone lookup can give you much more control over which calls you accept, and why.