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Watch Out for Loopholes in the New Robocall Rules

The government says you'll get fewer dinnertime disruptions, but there's more to the story

By Caroline Mayer

The Federal Communications Commission won heaps of praise recently for issuing new rules to stop robocalls — those unsolicited, often aggravating, automated telemarketing calls to your home. And the agency gleefully applauded itself as well: “Very soon there will be one less chance that consumers are distracted during dinner,” FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said of the new restrictions, which are likely to begin taking effect in a few months. 

But don’t expect all those annoying robocalls to go away.

 

For one thing, Congress mandated several big loopholes: The new robocall rules won’t apply to telemarketers calling about surveys, charities or political campaigns. That means you might still get dozens of computerized calls seeking your vote in the final weeks of the presidential campaign this fall.

 

In addition, plenty of con artists won’t obey the rules or will find ways around them.

 

Robocalls have continued to mount, as technology has made it fast, easy and cheap for telemarketers to blast them out by the millions. At the FCC, robocalls rank among the top three consumer complaints, with tens of thousands of complaints filed annually. Even more have been filed at the Do-Not-Call Registry of the Federal Trade Commission. Consumers posted nearly 2.3 million complaints about unwanted telemarketing calls to the FTC last year, up 55 percent from 2010, and robocalls represented almost half of them.

 

I find these numbers staggering. For one thing, they reflect only a fraction of the calls made, since they’re from consumers who took the time to file their grievances. For another, they came nine years after the Do Not Call list was created with the aim of enabling consumers to stop receiving nuisance calls. (So far, the public has registered 210 million phone numbers on the list.)

 

In recent months, federal officials have brought several enforcement actions against robocallers, most recently shutting down a phony debt relief service that falsely promised consumers lower credit-card interest rates with savings of at least $2,500. (The catch: You needed to first pay $995 — by credit card of course.)

In late March, the FTC put one robocall operation out of business as it reached a settlement with SBN Peripherals (doing business as Asia Pacific Telecom Inc.), banning the company and its executives from telemarketing and requiring it to give up roughly $3 million in assets.

 

The Limits of the Do Not Call List
 

Why are consumers who’ve signed up for the Do Not Call registry still getting robocalls? One reason is that when the FTC banned these types of calls in 2009, the agency exempted telecommunications firms, insurers, airlines, credit-card companies and other financial institutions.

 

That’s why the infamous computer voice “Rachel” from “Card Services” (or “Card Holder Services” or “Card Member Services”) may have called your home repeatedly, promising credit-card interest rate reductions. (Search the Internet and you’ll find hundreds of complaints about Rachel.) Asia Pacific, incidentally, is one of the companies that used "Rachel" to pitch debt-reduction services.

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Under the new FCC rules, telemarketers will be banned from making robocalls unless you’ve given them clear consent, either electronically or in writing. (Exactly how you’ll be able to do that is still being worked out.) It will still be a good idea to put yourself on the Do Not Call registry, if you want to limit your phone calls, since doing so will help reduce all types of calls from telemarketers.

 

Still, I’m not convinced that “Rachel” will disappear. These schemes are lucrative for the telemarketers.

 

So what should you do when the new robocall rules take effect? Here are three steps you can take:

 

Don’t hang up immediately. Instead, listen long enough to opt out. That way, if the company abides by the rules, it won’t call you again.

Be more vigorous in filing complaints. You can complain at the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry site, even if you haven’t signed up for the registry, or file your grievance at the FCC’s site. The more information you provide, including the name of the company and computerized salesperson, the easier it will be for the government to crack down on the telemarketer. In some states, you may also be allowed to file suits against telemarketers and received monetary damages for rule violations.

Tell me about robocalls you’ve received. Email me at [email protected] about your recent infuriating experiences. If it looks like the new rules aren’t doing the job, I’ll try to get action.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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