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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 its an automated, recorded robocall. Other times its a persistent telemarketer who just wont take no for an answer.
Its 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. Theyre only trying to do their job, but its 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 theyd 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 nations 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 its handed out more than $126 million in civil penalties and collected $741 million in takebacks from companies and restitution to victims. Its 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 thats needed is a phone-and-Internet connection to spew out thousands of calls a minute.
Its so efficiently cheap to blast out millions of these calls, said Kati Daffan, of the FTCs Bureau of Consumer Protection. Its 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 consumers phone.
In the last three years, theres 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 FTCs 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 consumers home or provided as part of a phone carriers service.
The FTC is hoping the contest will spur private businesses to innovate new products.
In general, the FTC recommends that consumers avoid responding to a robocall, even when asked to press a number that will remove you from the companys marketing list. The only exception is when you ask a live telemarketer to remove you from the business or charitys phone list.
The best response: Hang up.
We encourage people to just hang up the phone. The last thing you want to do is get added to a list of people likely to engage with scammers, said the FTCs Daffan.
Frustrated consumers are also encouraged to file a do-not-call complaint with the FTC.
We look at them every day, said Daffan. In the past three months, she said, the FTCs typical complaint volume 200,000 a month has dropped, down to 146,800 in June. Wed like to think its because weve made it a little more difficult (for illegal telemarketers). But its still an unacceptably high level.
In the meantime, consumers like Boyd say theyll do whatever they can to squelch incoming calls from telemarketers, starting with the Do Not Call Registry.
We dont like to be rude, said Boyd, a self-employed online utilities broker. Its easier to block the calls (than) have to tell them three times that were just not interested in what theyre selling.