Resilience of Robocalls Leaves a Lot of Ears Ringing
NEW YORK, Friday, June 1, 2012—SOMETIMES I just don't know when a column is going to hit a nerve. But judging from the response to my May 19 piece, annoying telemarketing calls and "robocalls" rank high among the miserable irritants of everyday life.

Readers said the calls, particularly those that offer lower interest rates for credit cards and mortgages, are becoming more frequent, despite using every tool available to block them.

Reporting such calls to the Federal Trade Commission, as I suggested, was an exercise in frustration and futility, many readers told me.

"I have all four of my phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry," one reader, John Dingman, of Dallas, told me in an e-mail. "When I report such calls, the F.T.C. site thanks me and there is no other discernible response. The calls continue, perhaps from other companies, perhaps from the same companies with a new gambit and/or phone number. Who knows?"
Read CUB's fact sheet on the Do Not Call Registry.


Readers told me that the Do Not Call Registry seemed to work just fine at blocking calls when it began in 2003 and for several years after that. But the number of unwanted calls has steadily increased.

"I report them all diligently, but the calls continue to come and from the same organizations," another reader, Kathleen Perry of San Diego, said in an e-mail. "It raises the question, what happens to these complaints? Is there any action at all taken? I've received many more calls than I did a few years ago. Have telemarketing organizations discovered that this is toothless legislation?"

So I decided to take another bite of the apple and delve deeper into these complaints. William Maxson, a staff attorney in the division of marketing practices and manager of the F.T.C.'s Do Not Call program, helped lead me through what I now understand is a multilayered maze.

First of all, legitimate organizations, in general, seem to obey the Do Not Call Registry. It's the fraudulent calls that are becoming more numerous lately.

The reason?

"The technological advances in the past 18 months have allowed illegal dialers to increase the number of calls they can make and to spoof — that is, use fake caller IDs," Mr. Maxson said.

No longer, then, should you think that these calls are coming from some boiler room filled with low-paid workers dialing and redialing with the same sales pitch.

With voice-over-Internet protocol, also known as VoIP, calls can be made cheaply from anywhere in the world, Mr. Maxson said. That is even more true with cloud-based VoIP, which makes such practices all the more decentralized.

Mr. Maxson laid out an example of how such calls might work so I would have a sense of the complexity.

A third-party company sets up software and technological capability that allows other companies to blast out millions of calls, Mr. Maxson said. Those are robodialers.

If the call asks you to press 1 and you do, you may be routed to a live person in a boiler room anywhere in the world. Those are called lead generators, whose sole purpose is to get the numbers of verified consumers to sell to telemarketers.

"They're basically just fishing for people," Mr. Maxson said.

The lead generators may ask, say, how many credit cards you have and what your average credit card debt is. At that point, two things may happen: your name goes on a sheet that will be sold to telemarketers nationally or internationally, or you get transferred to someone — who also could be anywhere in the world — who will try to sell you something.

The pitches vary, but they usually promise lower credit card interest rates or mortgage rates or payment plans for debt avoidance. The practices are almost always frauds — promising services, getting your money and then failing to deliver. Or they ask for credit card information and make fraudulent charges.

In one recent case, the F.T.C. shut down a company that sold worthless debt-reduction services and inferior extended auto-service warranties.

"We try to focus on the choke points, where there are a lot of bad actors," Mr. Maxson said.

The ability of these callers to work anywhere, hide behind false numbers and elude enforcement may make the whole problem seem like an out-of-control whack-a-mole game. But Mr. Maxson said the F.T.C. is trying to address the problem on a number of levels.

"We're working with legitimate telemarketers and also with possible technological solutions that may assist us in tracking down calls more quickly or blocking them,” he said. "We're aware this has become a bigger problem. These people are flouting the nation's fraud laws as well as the Do Not Call Registry."

Robocalls from "Rachel at card member services" seem in particular to be driving readers crazy. She's one busy lady, as Blacky Bokich, a reader from Los Angeles, attests, saying he had received Rachel calls from 10 different numbers.

In fact, Rachel has been around a long time, Mr. Maxson said, and is really just a digital recording that was made years ago and is recycled by dozens and dozens of lead generators and telemarketers.

"Those Rachel calls — I would like to murder that person," Mr. Bokich said. "It's beyond frustrating."

He estimated that he has been receiving such calls for over a year, sometimes on a daily basis. He has reported the calls to the F.T.C., reregistered on the Do Not Call Registry and asked his carrier, Verizon, to block some of the calls, but others keep popping up.

"When I tell the caller that we're on the Do Not Call Registry, he doesn't care," he said.

Ruth Kirshner from Millburn, N.J., knows well the same aggravation.

"I have repeatedly filed complaints, but to no avail," she said. She told me she had turned to Verizon's Unlawful Call Center, so I checked that out.

No help there. Verizon will block some calls, but the ability to do so depends on what kind of phone service you have, and it can cost about $5 a month. In general, unlawful calls are defined as threatening, harassing or obscene calls. And because robocalls and telemarketing calls do not fit into that category, Verizon cannot stop them, said Bob Elek, a spokesman for Verizon.

Ms. Kirshner, like many other angry consumers, said that in lieu of other solutions, she has come up with some creative methods to stop such calls — or at least to blow off some steam.

"I’ve pressed 1 to speak to the operator and begged them to stop calling," she said. "One woman I asked, 'How do I make you stop calling?' said, 'Really you can't — maybe you can cancel all your credit cards.' I've been told that the best thing is to just hang up."

But she's not giving up. She is continuing to file complaints with the F.T.C. and Federal Communications Commission, which jointly run the Do Not Call Registry, as well as with her state Do Not Call registry.

She has written to her senators, and posted her concerns on her New Jersey neighborhood's Web site that shares local information, urging neighbors to report such calls.

Others have resorted to more unorthodox means. Mr. Bokich has a loud police whistle and sometimes will press the number for the operator and blow with all his might. Friends told me they have resorted to pretending they don't speak English or going on a monologue about their own life stories. One said she has asked for the caller's home phone number so she can call him back while he's eating dinner.

Ms. Kirshner conceded that a few weeks ago, she snapped after receiving two phone calls in one day.

"I pressed 1, put the call on speaker phone and screamed into the phone. It had no impact."