Alexander Graham Bell could not have imagined his invention would one day evolve from a communication device into a weapon of sorts. Today, Americans are besieged by hordes of anonymous peddlers who utilize the telephone to brazenly defy the law. Consider what we are up against:
“Hello this is Rachel at Cardholder Services calling in reference to your credit card account,” intones one major violator.
And this from an anonymous scammer, “Hello this call is from the Microsoft security department. We encountered a serious issue coming out of your computer.”
“Hello I’m calling from the health insurance enrollment center,” claims a frequent spammer.
“Hi, this is Todd with the Fulfillment Department. Your wellness package is ready to be shipped,” says another notorious “robo” caller.
The Federal Trade Commission enforces telemarketer violations. “We bring cases to go after the folks who are blasting out those illegal calls,” says FTC Staff Attorney Janice Kopec. “Many of the more recent cases that we have brought have shut down operations that are responsible for billions of illegal calls,” Kopec says.
Prohibited practices include robocalling which is the use of mass-produced recorded sales pitches, disregard for the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry and the use of fake Caller ID.
“The extent of the problem is epidemic proportions,” says telemarketing expert Ethan Garr. “It’s not a problem you can solve with legislation. It’s a problem you have to solve with technology,” Garr said. Garr is with TelTech, a New Jersey computer science lab that develops mobile apps aimed at battling illegal telemarketers.
“The vast majority of them are scams and spam calls. They’re unwanted telemarketers. They’re the free cruises. It’s Rachel from Cardholder Services. It’s IRS phone scammers and people telling you that your computer is broken and unless you let them log in you’re not going to be able to use your computer again,” Ethan Garr says.
TelTech’s latest venture is a mobile app called Robokiller. In 2015 Robokiller won $25,000 in a Federal Trade Commission contest for its innovative approach to combatting abusive telemarketers.
“RoboKiller (is designed to) stop telemarketers from reaching your phone. We block all these unwanted and annoying calls. But what’s really cool is we answer those calls with ‘answer bots’ which are our own robots that waste the spammers time by talking back to them for hours on end,” Garr said.
And if you thought being on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call List protects you from illegal telemarketers, think again. With an estimated 3.8 billion illegal calls flooding America every month, government regulators are only able to crack down on a handful of egregious violators.
“(Illegal telemarketers) have very little risk of being prosecuted. Many of these calls, probably the majority, originate overseas,” TelTech’s Ethan Garr says. “It would be almost impossible for our government to find these people … and prosecute them. Even if you found them it’s likely that they would just close shop and open somewhere else,” Garr said.
So what can you do to stop the daily bombardment of annoying, illegal sales calls? Well, you probably can’t keep them from calling you all together but you can fight back.
Federal law allows any consumer victimized by illegal telemarketers to sue them in court for monetary damages. “There are consequences for ignoring these laws that have been on the books now for over 20 years,” says Santa Fe attorney Sid Childress who specializes in suing telemarketers.
Childress told News 13 that every time he files a lawsuit against a telemarketer it sends a message that, “they can and will be made to pay. I think that’s what they understand loud and clear,” Childress said.
Sid Childress has successfully sued dozens of shady telemarketers and has collected tens of thousands of dollars in damages for his clients. “I’m fed up with these calls. A lot of people are fed up with these calls. And so I’m going to make them pay,” Childress says.
Of course, not everyone has the time or resources to hire an attorney and file lawsuits. However, there are other things you can do to protect yourself.
First, register all your phones, both landlines, and mobile, on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry. It only takes a minute or two and while it won’t protect you from crooked telemarketers, it will protect you from the honest ones.
It will take a little bit of technology to thwart illegal callers. For example, install on your cell phone a call blocking app like Robokiller and you can prevent as much of 90% of the scammers and spammers from contacting you.
“We want to help people. We want to help them get their phones back and be able to answer the phone knowing it’s not a telemarketer or a scammer,” Ethan Garr says.
When your phone rings and you don’t recognize the Caller ID, let it go to voicemail. Telemarketers commonly will illegally ‘spoof’ their Caller ID to make it appear like a local call.
If you pick up the phone and a telemarketer or a scammer is on the line don’t engage them in conversation. Either put the phone down and walk away or simply hang up.
“Just be smart when you answer your phone and don’t take for granted that the person on the other side of the phone call is someone you can trust no matter how nice they are,” Garr says.
A final note. When Congress passed legislation aimed at curbing illegal telemarketing practices, it specifically exempted calls from politicians and charities engaged in fundraising.