On a single day in mid-December, Nancy Duke’s phone rang three times with the same pre-recorded sales pitch. It claimed that the Elgin, Texas, resident could win $3,000 worth of groceries if she’d answer a few questions. “Each time, I hit the 5 key to opt out and got a message that they were removing my number from their list,” she said, “only to get the same call again an hour or two later.”
New Federal Communications Commission rules that give consumers greater protection against robocalls took effect in October 2013, but the onslaught continues. Advances in technology have made it easy and cheap to send thousands of pre-recorded phone calls per minute using autodialers and fake caller IDs that make tracing hard.
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How significant is this issue? Through the first 11 months of 2013, American consumers had filed 1,837,558 complaints about robocalls with the FCC.
When Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, recently invited people to share tales of robocall hell, more than 4,000 responded within a week. Among them was Frank Brill Jr., of Newport News, Va., who reported receiving at least 34 such calls from Dec. 4 through Dec. 12, with pitches ranging from medical alert devices to home-security systems.
Listing your phone number with the National Do Not Call Registry can ward off unsolicited calls from legitimate telemarketers, but scam artists don’t care about screening out the more than 220 million phone numbers on that list.
Making telemarketing robocalls without the recipient’s written permission has been illegal since 2009, but the new, stricter rules require all robocallers to obtain your consent in writing, by electronic means, or on a voice recording before they can send a robocall or text to your cell phone or home phone. That’s now true even if they have an established business relationship with you. The only such calls considered legal are those that aren’t sales-related, such as prerecorded messages about flight changes and those from politicians or tax-exempt nonprofit organizations.
No matter how strict the rules, enforcement is challenging, especially because some of the crooks are overseas. Although the Federal Trade Commission has settled 23 cases against robocallers over the past five years and returned $11.9 million to victims, it has acknowledged that law enforcement alone won’t solve the problem. (On January 13, 2014, the FTC and the Florida Attorney General sued a company based in Orlando over its robocalls—made to senior citizens—for a supposedly free medical-alert device.)
That’s why the FTC launched its first-ever public contest in 2012, offering $50,000 to the person or small team proposing the best way to block robocalls. One of the winners, Nomorobo, can hang up on robocalls after one ring. It’s available at no charge to individuals (businesses pay a fee). But there’s a catch: Nomorobo can identify and block robocalls only if your phone carrier offers “simultaneous ring.” Only a few carriers offer that feature, and all of them use VoIP. To find out whether yours is among them, go tonomorobo.com. What you can do. Until there’s a Robocop for robocalls, protect yourself:
- If you pick up a robocall, hang up immediately. Pressing a number signals that the autodialer has reached a live number and can lead to more calls.
- Limit at least some unwanted calls by listing all of your numbers in the Do Not Call registry. Go to donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222 from the number you want to register.
- If you have caller ID, record robocallers’ numbers and report them to the FTC via the Do Not Call registry. Your information goes into a database that can help regulators identify the sources of illegal robocalls.
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