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Illegal sales calls irritate, increase

Telemarketers have been calling a retired Locust Grove couple’s land line so often that they now rarely answer their phone.

Robert and Diane Clauson’s number is on the National Do Not Call list, but that hasn’t stopped telemarketers from ringing it five to 15 times a day.

“What’s unusual about these calls, which started getting really bad this year, is that they actually have a 540 area code,” Diane Clauson said. “They use regular names, so you think you’re getting a normal call.”

But if she or her husband answered, the call usually turned out to be about a loan—typically a VA loan. They’d start to ask not to be called again, but would be hung up on before they could finish, she said.

“We’re not the only ones getting them,” Diane Clauson said. “I don’t think people know how to handle it. My personal opinion is that it’s harassment. They call on weekends, holidays, at 10:30 at night.”

ANNOYING RINGS ON THE RISE

Telemarketing calls have become such a headache for people such as the Clausons that the number of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission has skyrocketed.

According to testimony that commission officials gave to a Senate subcommittee in July, complaints about illegal robocalls alone went from 63,000 a month in the fourth quarter of 2009 to an average of about 200,000 complaints per month in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Virginians filed 100,105 of those complaints last year, or 1,236 for every 100,000 registrants on the Do Not Call List. The commonwealth ranked 18th among all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the number of complaints made.

Illinois ranked first with 234,473 complaints, or 1,822 per 100,000 registrants. Not surprisingly, Alaska, which had the fewest number of registrants, had the fewest number of complaints—2,398, or 332 per 100,000 people on the list.

Illegal telemarketing calls can take two forms. Those made by a live person are illegal if the recipient is on the Do Not Call list, as the Clausons are. Prerecorded robocall sales pitches are illegal even if the recipient isn’t on the list—unless the recipient has given the company permission, said Kati Daffan, an attorney with the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices.

TECHNOLOGY FUELS CALLS

Illegal telemarketing companies are able to inundate potential victims with an increasing number of calls due to changes in technology. Automated dialing, combined with cheap long-distance rates and overseas labor, have made it easy for them to blast out millions of robocalls from anywhere in the world for less than 1 cent per minute.

Software programs also make it a snap for fraudulent telemarketers to put any number they want—such as that of a local bank or major credit card company—into the caller ID field that pops up on their potential victims’ phones, Daffan said.

The practice is known as “caller ID spoofing,” and is prohibited by the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 when used to defraud or otherwise cause harm.

Daffan said that the FTC’s advice is to hang up on such calls and file a complaint online at complaints.donot

call.gov or by calling 888/382-1222.

MAKING VIOLATORS PAY

The commission is also using every tool in its arsenal to combat illegal telemarketers. These include fines and a nationwide competition designed to spur the public sector into coming up with solutions.

On the 10th anniversary of the Do Not Call Program last June, for example, the FTC announced that it had slapped Mortgage Investors Corp. with a civil penalty of $7.5 million for calling consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry and misstating the terms of loan products during telemarketing calls between 2009 and last year.

The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company is one of the nation’s leading refinancers of veterans’ home loans, and the fine was the largest ever for a violation of the Do Not Call telemarketing rule.

At the time, the enforcement action against Mortgage Investors was the 105th that the FTC had brought since it began enforcing the Do Not Call provisions in 2004. Although a number of cases remain in litigation, the 81 cases that had been concluded resulted in orders totaling more than $126 million in civil penalties and $741 million in redress or repayment of ill-gotten gains.

“There’s basically a steady drumbeat of cases that we’ve brought to shut [illegal telemarketers] down,” Daffan said.

SOLUTIONS AT HAND?

The FTC also launched a nationwide contest last October to get the public sector’s help in combating illegal telemarketing. It received about 800 eligible submissions, and selected three winners. One of them, Aaron Foss, will make his creation, Nomorobo, available free to the public on Sept. 30 at nomorobo.com.

Nomorobo uses the simultaneous ringing feature available on most phone systems, which allows an incoming call to ring at several numbers at once. It routes incoming calls to the second line and disconnects them if it detects that they’re coming from a computer.

Foss’ creation also blacklists verboten numbers, but doesn’t block school closings, appointment reminders, weather advisories and other legal robocalls.

A video of suggestions that didn’t make the cut for the contest is available at consumer.ftc.gov/media/video-0028-what-do-if-you-get-robocall.

“We know it will always be an arms race with the bad guys,” said Daffan, who narrates the video. “With robocalls, we don’t have the beginning technology for the arms race. When it’s available, I think the situation will be much improved.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

cjett@freelancestar.com

 

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