Complaints about illegal robocalls are rising

WASHINGTON -- So much for silence from telemarketers at the dinner hour, or any other hour.

Complaintsto the government are up sharply about unwanted phone solicitations,raising questions about how well the federal "do-not-call" registry isworking.

The biggest category of complaint:those annoying prerecorded pitches called robocalls that hawk everythingfrom lower credit card interest rates to new windows for your home.

RobertMadison, 43, of Shawnee, Kan., says he gets automated calls almostdaily from "Ann, with credit services," offering to lower his interestrates.

"I am completely fed up," Madison saidin an interview. "I've repeatedly asked them to take me off their calllist." When he challenges their right to call, the solicitors becomecombative, he said. "There's just nothing that they won't do."

Madison,who works for a software company, says his phone number has been on thedo-not-call list for years. Since he hasn't made any progress getting"Ann" to stop calling, Madison has started to file complaints about herto the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the list.

Amidfanfare from consumer advocates, the federal do-not-call list was putin place nearly a decade ago as a tool to limit telemarketing salescalls to people who didn't want to be bothered. The registry has morethan 209 million phone numbers on it. That's a significant chunk of thecountry, considering that there are about 84 million residentialcustomers with traditional landline phones and plenty more people withcellphone numbers, which can also be placed on the list.

Telemarketersare supposed to check the list every 31 days for numbers they can'tcall. But some are calling anyway, and complaints about phone pitchesare climbing even as the number of telemarketers checking the registryhas dropped dramatically.

Government figuresshow monthly robocall complaints have climbed from about 65,000 inOctober 2010 to more than 212,000 this April. More general complaintsfrom people asking a telemarketer to stop calling them also rose duringthat period, from about 71,000 to 182,000.

Atthe same time, fewer telemarketers are checking the FTC list to seewhich numbers are off limits. In 2007, more than 65,000 telemarketerschecked the list. Last year, only about 34,000 did so.

Despite those numbers, the FTC says the registry is doing an effective job fighting unwanted sales calls.

"It'sabsolutely working," Lois Greisman, associate director of the agency'smarketing practices division, said in an interview with The AssociatedPress. But, she said, "the proliferation of robocalls creates achallenge for us."

Greisman said prerecordedmessages weren't used as a major marketing tool in 2003, when theregistry began. "In part because of technology and in part because ofgreater competitiveness in the marketplace, they have become themarketing vehicle of choice for fraudsters," she said.

For people trying to scam people out of their money, it's an attractive option. Robocalls are hard to trace and cheap to make.

Withan autodialer, millions of calls can be blasted out in a matter ofhours, bombarding people in a struggling economy with promises of debtassistance and cheap loans. Even if a consumer does not have a phonenumber on the do-not-call list, robocalls are illegal. A 2009 rulespecifically banned this type of phone sales pitch unless a consumer hasgiven written permission to a company to call.

Politicalrobocalls and automated calls from charities, or informationalrobocalls, such as an airline calling about a flight delay, are exemptfrom the ban. But those exemptions are being abused, too, with consumerscomplaining of getting calls that begin as a legitimate call, say from acharity or survey, but then eventually switch to an illegaltelemarketing sales pitch.

Robocalls can behighly annoying to consumers because they're hard to stop. Fraudstersuse caller-ID spoofing so that when a person tries to call back therobocaller, they get a disconnected number or something other than thesource of the original call.

The best thingpeople can do when they get an illegal robocall is to hang up. Do notpress "1'' to speak to a live operator to get off the call list. If youdo, the FTC says, it will probably just lead to more robocalls. Thecaller will know you're there and willing to answer, and may continue tocall.

The FTC says people can also contacttheir phone providers to ask them to block the number. But be sure toask whether they charge for that. Telemarketers change caller-IDinformation often, so it might not be worth paying a fee to block anumber that will soon change.

The industry says most legitimate telemarketers don't utilize robocalls to generate sales.

"Theygive a bad name to telemarketers and hurt everybody," says JerryCerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at DirectMarketing Association, a trade group.

Cerasalesays the do-not-call list has resulted in telemarketers making farfewer cold calls to random people. Instead, he says, marketers haveshifted to other methods of reaching people, such as mail, email ortargeted advertisements on websites. That, he said, could be one of thereasons that the number of telemarketers checking the registry hasdropped so sharply.

In light of the increasedcomplaints, the FTC is stepping up efforts to combat robocalls. Itrecently released two consumer videos to explain what robocalls are andwhat to do about them. It also announced an October summit to examinethe problem and explore the possibility of emerging technology thatmight help trace robocalls and prevent scammers from spoofing theircaller ID.

Enforcement is another tool. TheFTC has brought cases against about a dozen companies since 2009,including Talbots, DirecTV and Dish Network. The cases have yielded $5.6million in penalties.

The agency said thismonth that it was mailing refund checks to more than 4,000 consumersnationwide who were caught up in a scam where the telemarketer usedrobocalls from names like "Heather from card services" to pitchworthless credit card rate reduction programs for an up-front fee.Checks to consumers range from $31 to $1,300 depending on how much waslost.

To file a complaint with the FTC, peoplecan go online to or call 888-382-1222 to report theirexperience for possible enforcement. To register for the National Do Not Call Registry, click here.


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