Just because you carry a smartphone around all the time doesn’t mean you want just anyone calling you. PrivacyStar (free in Google Play, optional subscription) aims to give you more control over who can contact you with powerful call and SMS blocking tools. But I found the app difficult to use, and it simply didn’t do enough to keep me insulated.
SMS and Call Blocking
To its detriment, PrivacyStar has two distinct ways to block phone numbers. The first is blocking specific numbers, which is controlled by the block list. Here you can enter a phone number to block, or select a number from your recent call log. By default, SMS messages from the numbers on your block list will also be blocked along with calls.
As with Editors’ Choice winner Mr. Number, you can also block whole groups of people, but not from the block list. Instead you go into Settings, turn on Group Blocking, and then define “groups” that you want blocked—that is area codes and code prefixes. For example, entering the area code 248 will block all numbers from Oakland Country, Michigan and the area code plus code prefix 212-503 will block all calls from PC Mag.
Group Blocking numbers will not appear in your blocklist, and while it is possible to add partial numbers or prefixes to your blocklist, it will not actually block calls.. This really annoyed me, since it was easy to forget what numbers I was blocking because the group block feature is buried. I much preferred Mr. Number’s approach, which had a single list and consistently blocked both SMS and calls.
I was also disappointed that PrivacyStar did not completely suppress incoming calls. Instead, my Samsung Galaxy S III rang once and then cut off. Mr. Number gave me options about what, if any, alerts I wanted to receive about blocked calls. Most security apps that feature call and SMS blocking, like avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus will completely smother a blocked call.
The app did a fine job blocking SMS messages from numbers on my blocklist, and generated a subtle notification as well. But strangely PrivacyStar did not block SMS messages from numbers blocked by Group Blocking, though it did successfully block calls.
PrivacyStar also did not store the content of blocked SMS message. Most other apps will give you the option to view blocked SMS messages in the app, but PrivacyStar just lists the sender’s number in its blocked call log.
Caller ID and Lookups
PrivacyStar’s enhanced caller ID system (named “call center”) did not win me over. For one thing, the app says that this feature will expire after the two-week free trial of the app’s premium mode. That said, you won’t be losing much: PrivacyStar’s call center simply replaces the Android call screen and provides slightly more information along with the option to block the caller, send the caller a message, look up how often you’ve heard from this caller, or add them to your contacts. You can also simply answer the call, though it weirdly did not include an option to ignore the call, which the stock Android call screen does allow.
To my dismay, the call center screen also includes an offer to upgrade, an advertisement, and (strangely) a Yahoo! Search bar. I don’t know whether those ads persist if you upgrade, but it’s annoying in the free version. I also really didn’t like how the call center lingers on the screen, vanishing only when you dismiss it.
Reverse call lookups are also available in the free two-week trial, though you’ll need to pay for the feature after that. I liked that the lookup results allowed me to block or file a complaint about a number, but they didn’t provide much more information than was available from standard caller ID. Mr Number gave you 20 free call lookups and offered additional lookups for 99 cents each. Six of one, half a dozen of another.
At SecurityWatch, we recommend that people forward SMS spam to shortcode 7726. From here it’s accessible by members of a wireless carrier consortium and the anti-spam company CloudMark. When reviewing Mr. Number, I was disappointed that all spam reports were only saved to the company’s database. I liked that PrivacyStar takes a different tack, and sends your spam reports to the FTC database.
When registering a complaint, you can select telemarketer or debt collector—which is a bit disappointing because “scammer” should definitely be on that list as well. This, I suspect, might fall outside the purview of the FTC database.
I also liked that you could only flag numbers from your call log, which is a smart move to limit random complaints. PrivacyStar also attempts to leverage its database of spam complaints by letting you automatically block a list of the top 25 most reported numbers. I like this, but I wonder how useful it will actually be, given that the most annoying spam I’ve encountered is highly localized. Still, a good feature unique to PrivacyStar.
Lacks Star Power
PrivacyStar has all the fundamental tools of a call blocking app, but its user experience is not good. Dividing the call blocking between two lists is confusing, and because one list is buried it’s very easy to forget that it’s active. I was very disappointed that the Group Blocking feature did not block SMS messages, especially since Mr. Number handled the task quite well. Placing advertisements on the Call Center is just intrusive, and compelled me to simply disable the feature altogether.
It’s clear that PrivacyStar is in need of a major update, hopefully sooner rather than later.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc