Despite legislation, annoying robocalls are on the increase
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The Federal Trade Commission says it's cracking down on robocalls, stepping up efforts to halt illegal automated sales calls that are a growing annoyance for millions of U.S. households.
The agency also is reaching out to frustrated consumers offering tips on how to handle the unwanted interruptions.
Since September 2009, the FTC has prohibited prerecorded telemarketing calls unless consumers give their written permission to receive them. Marketers are not allowed to trick people into signing a robocall waiver by burying it in the fine print.
"American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said when the law was enacted.
Despite the ban, the calls are on the rise, the agency said last week.
Complaints about robocalls have risen steadily from a monthly total of just over 65,000 in October 2010 to 140,500 in September 2011, according to the FTC's most recent figures. The agency actually received some 250,000 complaints about unwanted sales calls in September, but many don't indicate whether the call was automated or live.
The reason for the spike is technological, the FTC says. Making automated calls is easy and increasingly cheap. The calls also are becoming more difficult for law enforcement and regulators to trace because of new "spoofing" technology that allows the originator to transmit a fictitious caller ID.
"When a consumer sees caller ID information, that often is completely faked," said Kati Daffan, an attorney at the FTC's bureau of consumer protection.
In addition, robocallers often place calls through Internet technology that hides their location, she said.
The agency is planning a summit for October in Washington, D.C., to explore new ways to track and shut down illegal robocalls.
Although automated sales calls are prohibited, other prerecorded calls are not, including those from politicians, survey takers, debt collectors and most charities.
The ban also doesn't cover automated informational messages such as those that notify people about flight cancellations or school delays.
And while automated telemarketing calls are illegal, live sales calls are not. People who want to block those types of calls should place their phone numbers on the federal Do Not Call registry (www.donotcall.gov or toll-free at 1-888-382-1222).
Companies with an existing business relationship with a household, such as a bank or credit card company, are exempt from honoring the Do Not Call list. But regulations require those companies to put a phone number on their proprietary do-not-call lists if a customer requests it.
Meanwhile, the FTC last week offered advice for consumers on what to do the next time an illegal robocaller shows up for dinner:
• Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator or any other number even if you are told it will get you off the call list. Doing so likely will trigger more robocalls.
Many robocalls are made by lead-generating companies fishing to see if a particular number is working, Ms. Daffan said. In that case, pressing a number confirms the number is good.
• Consider contacting your phone provider and asking to have the offending phone number blocked. But keep in mind that it might not be worth paying a fee for the service since robocallers may frequently change their fake caller ID numbers.
• Report the call to the FTC. This can be done online at www.ftc.gov or by calling toll-free 1-877-382-4357. Helpful information includes the nature of the call and the caller ID (even if it is fake). "We can look across a bunch of complaints to see what numbers are being used to send a particular message," Ms. Daffan said.
• Hang up. It's not worth paying attention to a pitch made by an illegal robocaller since the caller already is flouting the law, Ms. Daffan said. "Assume they don't have anything legitimate to offer."
To learn more about robocalls and how the FTC is trying to stop them, visit www.ftc.gov/robocalls.
First Published July 17, 2012 12:00 am