This summer, the national Do Not Call Registry, managed by the Federal Trade Commission, turned 10 years old. There are now a whopping 221 million phone numbers in the registry, including mine. But I’m not celebrating this anniversary.
The reason is simple: Even though I signed up for the Do Not Call list when it began in June 2003, unwanted telemarketers ring my home phone several times a day. (I also get these types of irritating calls on my cell phone, but not as many.)
Worse, unlike 10 years ago, almost all of the solicitations are robocalls, made from automated dialers with recorded messages.
(MORE: Watch Out for Loopholes in the New Robocall Rules)
The Problems With 'Do Not Call'
What’s especially upsetting is that probably every one of them is from a fraudster who doesn’t care about violating the federal Do Not Call rules.
Congress created the Do Not Call Registry after an overwhelming public outcry demanded a stop to unwanted telemarketing calls. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
You go to the Do Not Call website and enter up to three phone numbers. After that, telemarketers covered by the registry have up to 31 days to stop calling you. Live telemarketers can’t phone unless you have an existing relationship with their company and telemarketers aren’t allowed to make robocalls unless you’ve given them clear consent, either electronically or in writing. (Robocallers aren't actually allowed to phone even if your number isn’t on the list.)
Not surprisingly, though, Congress created large loopholes to the rules, permitting charities, political organizations and pollsters to continue calling even if your number is on the Do Not Call list.
Robocall Complaints Are Soaring
Based on complaint statistics from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, I’m clearly not suffering alone.
Telemarketing complaints at the FTC have risen from 150,393 in 2003 to nearly 4 million last year (roughly 2 million of those were robocall complaints). At the FCC, the number of robocall concerns has doubled in the past two years, reaching 100,000 in 2012.
(MORE: The Do Not Call Registry: What Is and Isn’t Blocked)
Yet the federal government says that, by and large, the Do Not Call registry has done what it was supposed to do for people who’ve signed up.
“Legitimate companies are not calling you,” Lois Greisman, an FTC associate director, told me. Unfortunately, she added, illegitimate ones are.
The Sad History of 'Do Not Call'
That wasn’t the case when the Do Not Call list first took effect. Initially, phones belonging to people who signed up sat shockingly still during dinner and evening hours – to the point that humorist Dave Barry called the registry “the most popular federal concept since the Elvis stamp.”
Alas, technology broke the silence.
It not only drastically lowered the cost of long-distance calls to less than a penny per minute but also created automated dialers that can blast out thousands of solicitations a minute.
So even if you’ve registered for Do Not Call, telemarketers who don’t follow the rules can easily – and cheaply – bug you.
And they do. An FCC investigation found one operation making 6 million impermissible robocalls in just several months.
(MORE: Scam Alert: Political Surveys That Are Actually Sales Pitches)
Fraudsters Play Whack-A-Mole
Technology has also let con artists manipulate Caller ID to hide the real phone number they’re calling from. Even more disturbing, they sometimes plug in legitimate phone numbers and pretend to be calling from a trustworthy institution, like a bank or government agency. That’s called “spoofing.”
The government is trying to go after illegal telemarketing calls, but it’s like a game of Whack-A-Mole. After knocking one company out of business, another pops up, often almost identical and with the same sales pitch.
You’ve probably received at least one prerecorded message from “Rachel” from “Card Services,” “Cardmember Services” or some similarly named company promising to reduce your credit card interest rate. The FTC has brought five cases against companies allegedly responsible for millions of these illegal calls, but they’re still coming; I got one just last week.
Greisman says her agency has shut "Rachel" down repeatedly, only to find new versions reappear.
Phone Companies Are Resistant
To try stemming the illegal telemarketing tide, the FTC recently sponsored a Robocall Challenge, awarding $50,000 to tech ideas the agency thought had the most promise for blocking robocalls. The three winners conceived automated algorithms to identify, intercept and filter out illegal prerecorded calls that would be placed on a blacklist and are trying to sell these computerized programs to U.S. phone companies. So far, though, the carriers have been reluctant to adopt widespread call-blocking technology. They fear it might prevent legitimate robocalls from going through, like ones from airlines alerting passengers about flight changes.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chaired a hearing on robocalls earlier this month, promised to check back with the leading phone companies in three months to see what progress they’ve made adopting robocall-blocking technology.
I hope she does.
How to Complain About Telemarketers
In the meantime, I’ve decided it’s time for me – and you, I hope – to share our aggravation with our senators and representatives and to file complaints with the FTC and FCC when we get illegal telemarketing calls.
Just as a consumer groundswell led to the creation of the Do Not Call List, perhaps a new surge will lead to tighter laws or a mandate for better technology that will detect and block unwanted calls.
5 Tips to Reduce Robocalls
Until that happens, here are five tips on limiting and handling robocalls:
1. If you haven’t signed up for the Do Not Call registry yet, do so. No, it won’t stop fraudsters, charities, pollsters or politicians from calling. But getting on the registry should reduce the number of calls you get from other companies.
2. Stop providing your phone number to businesses unless you know they’re legit and you won’t mind hearing from them. I’m thinking especially about contest entries, warranty registrations and retailer email lists. The more you share your phone number with them, the more likely you’ll get called.
3. Find out if your phone company offers call blocking. If so, consider signing up. Blocking lets you flag particular phone numbers so their calls can’t reach you.
Some services offer the service for free; others charge a fee that may total $4 to $7 a month. You could be limited in how many numbers are blockable, however. And even after blocking one, the telemarketer might switch to a new number and get through.
4. Look into call blocking apps for your smartphone. Two free, downloadable apps for Android phones are CallFilter and Privacy Star.
If you set up your cell phone to use Google Voice for voicemail, you’ll automatically get Google’s call-blocking feature.
This fall, Apple is expected to include call blocking on its new iOS7 mobile operating system, which will be available for models as far back as the iPhone 4.
5. Finally, hang up on unwanted solicitations. The FTC used to advise consumers to wait for a live operator then demand to be put on the caller’s private Do Not Call list. But the agency has changed its tune, realizing that this tactic risks validating your phone number as a legitimate one.
As a result, you could then start receiving even more aggravating calls because the telemarketer might sell your number to another company. So the instant you know the call is one you don’t want, put the phone down.