The Edmond Sun

July 29, 2013

How to keep telemarketers at bay


Special to The Sun

SACRAMENTO — “Are your carpets dirty?” “Paying too much on your home mortgage?” “Let us help you lower the interest rate on your credit cards!”

Chances are, one of these annoying messages — or something similar — has hit your phone recently. Even if you have caller ID to help block unwanted calls, they still sneak through.

Sometimes it’s an automated, recorded “robocall.” Other times it’s a persistent telemarketer who just won’t take “No” for an answer.

“It’s a constant barrage. It drives me nuts,” said Fair Oaks, Calif., resident Dot Boyd, who said she and her husband typically get three to five unwanted sales calls a week. “They’re only trying to do their job, but it’s so incessant,” said Boyd, who usually either ignores the message or just hangs up.

Like millions of other frustrated consumers, the couple recently relisted their home phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

Created 10 years ago by the Federal Trade Commission in response to consumer complaints, the registry lets consumers put their personal phone numbers on a no-call list that all telemarketers must abide by — or face stiff fines.

In the past decade, more than 221 million phone numbers were added by consumers to the registry, which can stop “most, but not all” unwanted calls, according to the FTC.

The “do not call” list is just one of many tools used by FTC enforcers to pursue the persistent problem of illegal telemarketers and robocallers.

Lawsuits and million-dollar penalties are another. In recent weeks, the FTC has slapped beefy fines on several companies accused of bombarding consumers with unwanted calls.

Last week, it assessed a $3.2 million penalty on a major debt collection company for harassing consumers by phone. In its complaint, the FTC said Texas-based Expert Global Solutions and its subsidiaries repeatedly — and illegally — called consumers to collect debts: early in the morning, late at night, at their workplace, and after they’d been asked to stop.

In late June, the FTC handed out its biggest civil penalty ever — $7.5 million — for do-not-call violations on Mortgage Investors Corp., one of the nation’s leading refinancers of military veterans’ home loans.

Those cases are among more than 100 lawsuits filed against illegal telemarketers in the past decade, including well-known companies such as Dish Network and DirecTV. So far, the FTC says it’s handed out more than $126 million in civil penalties and collected $741 million in takebacks from companies and restitution to victims. It’s also shut down companies responsible for “billions” of illegal robocalls.

So why do so many of us still get all those irritating calls?

Blame it on technology. Telemarketers once had to employ boiler rooms of callers who dialed households by hand. Today, all that’s needed is a phone-and-Internet connection to spew out thousands of calls a minute.

“It’s so efficiently cheap to blast out millions of these calls,” said Kati Daffan, of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It’s the spam of the telephone.”

And software also allows telemarketers to hide their identity by “spoofing” or faking the caller ID that shows up on a consumer’s phone.

In the past three years, there’s been “an explosion” of consumer complaints about unwanted robocalls, said Daffan, which the FTC presumes is due to the use of more sophisticated phone technologies.

In testimony earlier this month before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Lois Greisman, an associate director with the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, said illegal robocalls “are still a significant consumer protection problem” that “disturb consumers’ privacy ... and peddle fraudulent goods and services that cause significant economic harm.” She said the FTC is using every tool at its disposal to fight them.

That includes a recent FTC-sponsored “Robocall Challenge,” which offered a $50,000 prize to anyone devising a technological solution to block illegal robocalls on consumers’ cellphones and landlines. Nearly 800 applicants submitted ideas. In April, the FTC announced two co-winners, who came up with software filters that would “blacklist” rogue robocaller numbers and “whitelist” acceptable incoming calls. The software could be used as a mobile phone app, on an electronic device in the consumer’s home or provided as part of a phone carrier’s service.

The FTC is hoping the contest will spur private businesses to innovate new products, similar to the anti-spam filters and other software sold for personal computers.