Rachel telephoned the other day, and I realized I hadn’t heard from her in a while. She’s someone I’m sure you’ve encountered, too.
Rachel, who announces she’s from “Cardholder Services” before you can even say hello, is the automated caller who plagues cellphones and landlines. First-time recipients may feel an initial pang of anxiety at hearing from her — Was my credit card breached? — but by the 10th or 20th or 30th interaction, that worry becomes downright irritation.
Yet Rachel keeps calling to pitch her rate-reduction services. Being on the government’s Do Not Call Registry won’t keep her at bay; neither will rules that forbid pre-recorded telemarketing messages, known as robocalling. Rachel, you see, is an unapologetic law-breaker.
Actually, says Will Maxson, a staff attorney with the Federal Trade Commission, she’s a sound file easily found on the Internet, and that’s part of the reason Rachel is so hard to stop. “Lots and lots of different robocalls use that message,” he says, and with advances in technology that allow calls to be placed from anywhere in the world by anyone with a computer and software, Rachel can be everywhere and nowhere.
But the FTC, which works to protect consumers from deceptive business practices, has been hot on Rachel’s trail. In March, it secured a settlement order against a suburban Los Angeles operation that had bombarded consumers with more than 2 billion calls between January 2008 and August 2009, including many by Rachel. The order banned several interrelated companies and their principals from the telemarketing field and required that they surrender $3 million in assets.
Like the game Whac-A-Mole, however, Rachel keeps resurfacing — to the frustration of consumers and the FTC alike. “We get those calls [at home], too,” says Maxson, who serves as the agency’s program manager of Do Not Call enforcement.
The national Do Not Call Registry, jointly managed by the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission, was created in 2003 as a way for consumers to block unwanted telemarketing calls. It worked fine for a time — until technology made it possible for unscrupulous companies to ignore established telemarketing protocols and call with near impunity by masking their caller-IDs or quickly changing their location or number.
All telemarketing robocalls (except political, survey, public interest and charitable ones) have been illegal since 2009, according to the FTC, unless agreed to in writing beforehand by the recipient. This summer, the FCC tweaked the Do Not Call rules by eliminating a provision that had allowed a robocall to a consumer with an “established business relationship.”
To try to get ahead of Rachel, the FTC will hold a Robocall Summit in October that Maxson said will bring together representatives from the telemarketing and telecommunications industries, law enforcement and consumer groups to talk about the problem and “ways to fight back with technological advances.” For now, though, the FTC advises hanging up on Rachel. If you’re on the Do Not Call Registry and get a call, you can file a complaint with the FTC (online at donotcall.gov) that goes into a big database that agency investigators use to watch for patterns that may lead to future prosecutions.
I’ve hung up on Rachel countless times, and after she called on Friday, I filed an online complaint, too. I thought I had outsmarted her by adding our cellphone numbers to the Do Not Call Registry, but there she was again — followed an hour later by another robocall pitching home-security services.