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Is the Do Not Call Registry a ‘Joke’?

Is the Do Not Call Registry a ‘Joke’?
By: Sid Kirchheimer | Source: AARP Bulletin Today | August 12, 2009

With 185 million phone numbers on the government list, why are telemarketers still calling?

Illustration: Alamy

André-Tascha Lammé listed his phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry the day it opened—June 27, 2003. It didn’t help.

“The telemarketers kept calling. At one point, I was getting up to 20 calls a day,” says the computer technology consultant. “And they still do. Just yesterday, I received a call from a company I’ve never done business with, selling home improvement services.”

He filed numerous complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which runs the Do Not Call list. “But no action was taken on any complaint I made,” says Lammé. He finally took matters into his own hands, paying $35 to file complaints in small claims court against telemarketers who ignored his repeated requests to stop calling his home.

So far, he says, he has received $16,000 in settlements and awards—“and I haven’t lost a case yet.” He has even started a website that provides free how-to-sue instructions for other Do Not Call registrants pestered by telemarketing violators.

“You really have to take action yourself,” Lammé tells the Bulletin. “The Do Not Call list is a joke. It does nothing to stop telemarketers.”

Maybe you can relate. Since the Do Not Call list’s inception six years ago, 185 million phone numbers have been registered. And yet, millions of Americans continue to get unwanted and unsolicited telemarketing calls.

The robots attack

Most recently, there has been a barrage of “robocalls”—prerecorded messages made with an autodialer that tries every phone number in sequence.

“I get about 15 a month, and I registered on the Do Not Call list when it came out,” says Bob Sills, 58, who lives near Oakland, Calif. “It probably stopped some calls, but it’s been pretty constant over the last 18 months.”

Sills says he routinely follows callers’ instructions to be removed from their lists to prevent future calls—to no avail. And like Lammé, he has also filed complaints on the Do Not Call website. “I never heard back on any complaint I filed,” says the retired computer programmer. “If the government can trace the numbers of these violators, why aren’t they shutting them down?”

It’s a question that many have been asking recently. Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Mark Warner, D-Va., spoke out after 300,000 people complained to the Better Business Bureau about robocalls selling dubious auto warranties. Those calls were made not only to land lines but also to cellphones, which are off limits to any telemarketing calls.

In response, the FTC asked a federal court to shut down two Florida companies, one selling the allegedly worthless warranties and the other a telemarketing company said to have made as many as 1 billion robocalls since 2007.

That action, according to FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz, is the 58th in six years against firms charged with violating Do Not Call regulations. In all, some $21 million in fines has been collected for the U.S. Treasury.

Why the calls keep coming

The calls are tough to stop for several reasons:

• In the first place, some calls may be bothersome, but they’re legal. Exempt from Do Not Call rules are phone calls made by political organizations and politicians, charities, survey takers and companies with which you have an established business relationship.

This means that if you hold a mortgage from Citibank, for instance, you will likely receive calls pitching Citibank credit cards or other services. “But once you tell that company to remove you from its list, they should stop calling,” notes Katz.

• Sometimes, companies are negligent. All telemarketers are required to check the Do Not Call registry every month to determine which phone numbers should not be called. “But there are telemarketers who don’t, and citizens get calls when they shouldn’t,” says Katz.

• But the biggest problem is that such calls can easily be disguised by unscrupulous telemarketers, who use a variety of techniques to avoid getting caught. These include using robocalls as well as “spoofing,” which lets callers hide or disguise the phone numbers appearing on your caller ID.

Spoofing products—sold on the Internet for as little as $10 for 60 minutes of calling time—are often used by scammers posing as your credit card company, a government agency or another legitimate entity in order to get sensitive personal information. Spoofing also makes it virtually impossible for consumers to make accurate Do Not Call complaints because the numbers they see on their Caller ID aren’t the real ones.

Another way telemarketers can disguise themselves is by subscribing to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone services such as Vonage that let them choose their own area code and phone numbers. Or they can create their dinnertime annoyances via disposable cellphones, using prepaid minutes and then tossing the phone.

Complaints matter

With billing records and other methods, authorities can still trace violating calls to their sources—but that requires a costly and time-consuming investigation. And that explains why, despite more than 1 million complaints filed annually on the Do Not Call website, most consumers never hear back from the FTC.

Nevertheless, “the most valuable thing you can do is file a complaint at our website,” says Lois Greisman, the FTC official who oversees the Do Not Call list.

“Complaints matter, because we use them cumulatively to look for trends and entities we believe are involved in telemarketing fraud, and do not comply with Do Not Call privacy requirements.” Currently, complaints have been filed by fewer than 3 percent of registered telephone numbers, she says.

However, Greisman acknowledges the FTC typically goes after only “the biggest and baddest targets” and doesn’t investigate individual complaints. “There is no magic number of complaints that will trigger an investigation,” she says.

What can you do?

• Many states operate their own Do Not Call lists. Registering your phone with the one in your state may be more effective at stopping unwanted calls from local businesses, which are off the FTC’s radar.

• If you do end up talking with a telemarketer, try to elicit as much information as possible. You can often obtain the name and location of calling businesses by feigning interest in their products or services. This gives you a better chance of knowing the caller’s true identity for an accurate complaint.

• Screen your calls through your answering machine or ask your phone carrier about “blocking” services that prevent unknown phone numbers from reaching you. Learn about services and strategies to protect your privacy rights.

• Be aware that telemarketers making prohibited calls to Do Not Call registrants are subject to a $16,000 fine. “Often, if you mention that fact with a threat to sue, that stops telemarketers from calling you again,” says Lammé.

Sid Kirchheimer covers consumer and health issues for the AARP Bulletin.

Is the Do Not Call Registry a ?Joke?? - Telemarketers Still Call - AARP Bulletin Today
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