Phone service system battles unwanted telemarketing calls

He's had his name on the national “do not call” registry for years, but the calls keep coming.(Source: MGN Online)
He's had his name on the national “do not call” registry for years, but the calls keep coming.(Source: MGN Online)

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - It may take a whole new generation of technology to put a dent in those annoying telemarketing calls and robo-calls.

That was the finding of a WAFF 48 news investigation into the seemingly never-ending irritation many people experience with telemarketing calls, particularly automated robotic calls.

"You know that there's something fishy there," complained Air Force retiree Ron Willis of Madison. He said he has long been sick of getting telemarketer calls and robo-calls.

He's had his name on the national "do not call" registry for years, but the calls keep coming. "Some of them, it seems, are random," he said. "They just call everybody."

Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act passed by Congress in 1991, it's illegal for almost any business to solicit consumers by phone if they've registered on the Federal Trade Commission's national "do not call" list, but the FTC tells WAFF 48 News it still gets more than 280,000 complaints about such calls every month.

FTC officials said the law, and the list, doesn't help much because many of the calls now pestering consumers are from criminals, con artists who ignore the law anyway.

In the computerized internet era, they said, computerized robo-calling technology helps them get away with it.

"It is very easy to make lots and lots of illegal calls from anywhere in the world at a very low cost," said commission Do Not Call coordinator Bikram Bandy. "So what we're seeing is violators have leveraged that technological advancement to break the law and place lots of unwanted calls, particularly robo-calls, to consumers."

"The people that call up and say 'we're calling about your credit card,'" agreed Willis who said some of the calls were obviously scammers trying to get personal information. Willis said he knows to ignore them but wants the calls to stop. "This is my home," he said. "That's my personal phone. I don't bother them during dinner."

Some consumers try to address telemarketers directly by asking, during solicitation calls, to be taken off of phone lists, or by asking the telemarketers to wait and simply leaving their phones until the callers give up. Comedian Tom Mabe has turned revenge on phone solicitors into a comedy routine. His prank responses to often baffled telemarketers, many of which are available on YouTube, can offer sweet laughs to frustrated consumers.

Inventor Aaron Foss has produced a free internet based system specifically to block robo-calls. It's available online under the name Nomorobo and it actually has the endorsement of the FTC, which paid him a $25,000 prize for developing it.

"These guys are like insects. They're just everywhere," he said. "The data is showing me that over 21 percent of all calls that are made are illegal robo-calls. That's one in five calls are unwanted illegal robo-calls and telemarketers. So the numbers are just staggering."

Nomorobo routes computerized calls off to a separate number where they're answered by a computer, which then hangs up on them. Subscribers hear nothing but a single ring that reveals a robo-call has come in, and been intercepted. "Over here we call it 'the Nomorobo smile,'" said Foss, "when people are eating dinner and they hear 'ring' and then it stops and they go 'we got you!'"

After one year, Nomorobo has 150,000 users and has blocked 10 million robo-calls. It's currently only available for VOIP internet based phones but Foss said he is trying to win over Verizon and AT&T to get it onto traditional wired systems and wireless phones.

For now, the FTC recommends four steps:

· Get on the national Do Not Call list, which will block law abiding telemarketers and at least reduce the number of calls you get.

· As tempting as a rant or a joke might be, just hang up when a robo-calls comes in. Even dialing "1" or trying get taken off a calling list will only alert the calling computer that you're a real person on a functioning phone line, which could bring more robo-calls in the future.

· Look into blocking devices and services like Nomorobo. There are also Android apps available online and blocking devices you can pick up on Amazon.

· Do file a complaint with the FTC about unwanted calls, which you can do right on the FTC's do not call list website.

Ron Willis did after one phone solicitation pushed him from being annoyed to being worried.

"I thought it was deceitful and particularly probably fishing for much older folks that are sometimes easier to confuse," Willis said. "So I filed a complaint."

Bandy predicted the robo-call situation should get better as technology catches up. Pointing to the now largely successful development of spam filters for email and saying it's only a matter of time before comparable systems for phones take bigger and bigger bites out of spam phone calls.

"If we can provide that type of service consumers will be able to play defense against these calls and really it'll make it harder for the folks that are breaking the law to make money." he said. "They're going to have a harder time actually getting through to consumers so they can pitch their phony goods and services."

Bandy offered one piece of clarification as consumers face a barrage of calls seeking votes in the home stretch of an election season. He said political phone solicitations and robo-calls are not covered by the Do Not Call List because they are considered protected speech under the First Amendment and cannot be banned.

But Foss said individuals are perfectly free to block such calls using any blocking devices or software they can find and a private company like his is perfectly free to help.

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