Telemarketers call in reinforcements as they ignore do-not-call list

Complaints by those in the federal Do Not Call Registry are on the rise as telemarketers use robocalls and 'spoofing.'

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Dan Yeh has been on the federal government's Do Not Call Registry for years. And for a while, it seemed like the leave-me-alone system worked just fine.

Not anymore.

"There's been a real surge recently," Yeh, 72, told me. "I've been getting five or six calls a day, at all hours, seven days a week."

The Huntington Beach resident isn't alone. I've heard similar complaints from dozens of other people.

Regardless of having registered a phone line with the Federal Trade Commission as a telemarketer-free zone, a growing number of consumers are saying that some businesses are ignoring their stated preference and calling anyway.

A particular annoyance: automated robocalls that get you on the line before looping in a human telemarketer. Such calls frequently use "spoofed" lines that hide their origin or make it look as if the call is from someone you know.

"I've given up answering the land line," said Rory Johnston, 67, of Hollywood. "They're nearly all robocalls."

It's not people's imagination that telemarketers are stepping up their game.

"We're definitely seeing an uptick in consumer complaints," acknowledged Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC's division of marketing practices, which oversees enforcement of the do-not-call list.

In 2011, she said, the agency received about 2.6 million complaints about do-not-call violations. Last year, that number jumped 54% to almost 4 million.

"This isn't the Fortune 500 calling you," Greisman said. "These are fraudsters, and they were never going to comply with the do-not-call list."

But why the recent increase in robocalls and telemarketing?

Greisman blamed it on technological advances that make such calls easier and cheaper, including auto-dialers that can generate thousands of calls a minute. She also cited technical tricks such as spoofing that help marketers hide their identity and get around people's caller-ID defenses.

Simply put, federal officials had no idea that scammers and marketers would become so sophisticated when the do-not-call list was established 10 years ago.

"The telecom system looked very different back then," Greisman said.

At that time, telemarketers sued the FTC over what they said were violations of their free-speech rights. A federal appeals court saw things otherwise, ruling that the do-not-call list "advances the government's important interests in safeguarding personal privacy and reducing the danger of telemarketing abuse."

Since then, the FTC has gone after about 530 individuals and businesses for bothering consumers who didn't want to be bothered. That translates to roughly 50 a year — not the most spectacular enforcement record considering that 221 million phone numbers are registered on the do-not-call list.

The FTC last month announced its biggest catch to date: Mortgage Investors Corp., a Florida home-refinancing company, agreed to pay a record $7.5 million fine for having made more than 5.4 million calls to people on the do-not-call list.

But Greisman acknowledged that completely ending robocalls and do-not-call-list violations is about as likely as preventing spam from spilling into people's email in-boxes.

"You can never stop anything 100%," she said. "But the problem of spam has been substantially minimized by filtering technology. I'm hopeful that the same can happen with robocalls."

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