One of the increasingly common, yet annoying, disturbances in recent American life is the emergence of robocalls. For some, they go beyond annoying and pose the threat of a serious financial scam.
In the age of cellphones, robocalls can occur anywhere – at home when people are trying to have quality time with their families, at work, while people are sitting in a church pew, and even while people are trying to sleep.
Robocalls are defined by the Federal Trade Commission [FTC] – one of several federal agencies assigned to regulate unwanted and illegal telemarketing – as a telephone call where the person answering the call hears a recorded message. Callers often use a computerized auto dialer to deliver a pre-recorded message to both home landlines and wireless numbers. The percentage of complaints on robocalls until recently has been increasing annually.
According to FTC and Better Business Bureau officials, many different scams use robocalls, including those from bogus companies claiming the ability to lower utility bills or credit card rates, those offering vacation packages and even individuals posing as IRS agents.
While it may seem as if the telemarketing industry is lawless, regulations do apply.
Illegal robocalls include those that are a sales message, and those where the telemarketer does not have written permission to make calls to a particular person. Simply buying a product or contacting a business doesn’t give a company permission to robocall a person or company. New rules allow those receiving robocalls to opt out from receiving them.
Some robocalls are allowed under FTC regulations, including recorded messages from charities and candidates running for political office. Informational recordings from a doctor’s office about appointments also are allowed.
According to National Do No Call Registry statistics released by the FTC on Dec. 6, the FTC continued to receive a high number of consumer complaints about telemarketing robocalls during the 2017 fiscal year; however, this number recently has decreased.
In fiscal year 2018, the FTC received 3,790,614 complaints about robocalls, compared with 4,501,960 in fiscal year 2017. Each month, robocalls have made up the majority of consumer complaints about Do Not Call Registry violations.
This year, the most frequently reported robocalls dealt with reducing debt, medical and prescription offers, and imposter scams. While reducing debt remains the top robocall topic, robocalls about vacations, timeshares, warranties and protection plans, have dropped out of the top complaint topics.
Why are there so many robocalls?
They are cheap and effective. Many robocalls cost less than a penny to make.
“It’s a very cost-effective way for telemarketers or fraudsters to reach a high volume of consumers who are targets of their fraud,” said Ian Barlow, the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry coordinator and a staff attorney who has brought lawsuits against robocall violators.
Robocallers are prominent in categories that have a low return rate for what they are selling.
While Barlow noted that “most people are wary of it and don’t fall for it.” He said, “It’s just important to reach as many people as possible.”
Barlow said there are few barriers of entry for robocallers. Anyone with a little sophistication in terms of information technology can download free software, connect to a voice over internet protocol [VOIP] telephone provider, and “basically become a robocaller overnight,” he said.
Barlow said a significant unexplained dip in robocalls last summer may account for the fiscal year 2018 decline. Without that dip the numbers might be near or the same as 2017, he said – and he doesn’t see them going away any time soon despite legal action or actions by consumers,
Complaints to state authorities remain significant, though the Missouri attorney general’s office said they received 58,665 complaints in 2016, compared to 46,514 in 2017 and 44,390 in 2018.
Rebecca Phoenix, an investigator with the Better Business Bureau of St. Louis, said that agency also receives “a consistent flow of complaints about robocalls.” Phoenix encourages consumers to check out the BBB Scam Tracker to check on complaints and file one if necessary.
Local police departments receive the fewest complaints. “It’s sporadic,” said Melissa Doss, communications officer for the St. Peters Police Department. But fraud alerts about calls from the IRS are made by police every spring. The IRS does not contact individuals by telephone, Doss said.
Phoenix encourages consumers to sign up for the National No Do Not Call registry online at donotcall.gov or by calling 1-888-382-1222. The Missouri Do Not Call registry can be accessed online at ago.mo.gov or by calling 1-866-662-2551.
Joining those lists won’t stop all robo or telemarking calls but they might help in reducing the amount an individual consumer receives.
Phoenix and FTC officials say the registries were designed to deal with regular telemarketers contacting consumers directly and not just recordings. Barlow explained that the registries are not enforcement tools.
“First of all, you are dealing with scammers [and] scammers are not always following laws and regulations,” she said.
Simple steps to limit robocalls
Phoenix said there are some simple steps that can be taken to limit robocalls. One step is to use Caller ID to screen calls. Don’t answer phone calls that are unfamiliar.
If you do answer, she said to ignore any and all recorded prompts to press numbers on your keypad to be taken off the caller’s mailing list. Pressing a key tells scammers you have an active number.
Active numbers can be sold to other telemarketers and, as a result, your calls could increase. Officials also encourage reporting suspicious numbers to the Do Not Call registries, which Barlow said are good at informing consumers about companies with whom they probably shouldn’t be doing business.
Barlow said the FTC has brought 140 lawsuits against fraudulent robocallers and, of those, has finished 126 and collected $121 million in damages. The lawsuits include 464 corporations and 374 individuals, not shell companies, Barlow said.
Another option for dealing with robocalls is the use of apps, blockers and alerts provided by smartphone providers. Some providers offer those tools at an additional cost, others provide them for free. Among those options are AT&T Call Protect, Verizon Caller Name ID, T-Mobile Scam Block and Sprint Premium Caller ID. Apps available outside of smartphone providers include Nomorobo, Hiya, Robokiller, Truecaller and Youmail. West Newsmagazine has not tested and does not endorse any of these products, which authorities say can cull some but not entirely stop robocalls.
Phoenix said the best plan is: “When in doubt, don’t answer the phone.”