In the first few months of the Do Not Call Registry in 2003, it was such a success that humorist Dave Barry dubbed it “the most popular federal concept since the Elvis stamp.”
But in the past few years, the number of scammers making illegal sales calls, particularly pre-recorded “robocalls,” has grown faster than you can say “Viva Las Vegas.”
Everyone from the Federal Trade Commission to your local phone company has noticed, said Holly Hollingsworth of AT&T Ohio.
“It’s acknowledged as an industry-wide problem,” Hollingsworth said. “Nearly all the conversation we’ve been having about robocalls has been focused on additional steps that can be taken, like the Call Protect service we introduced for customers in December.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
When the Do Not Call registry launched in June 2003, it was a rousing success. After only four days, Americans who were fed up with unsolicited sales calls had registered more than 10 million numbers for the list.
But since 2009, the Federal Trade Commission has seen a significant increase in the number of illegal sales calls — particularly robocalls, which are generated by computers.
“Complaints about unwanted robocalls are the largest source of complaints at the FTC,” said Janice Kopec, coordinator of the agency’s Do Not Call program.
The reason is technology, said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a voice-mail and call-managing service that began tracking robocall activity in 2015.
Technology has made it easier and cheaper not only for individuals to make phone calls, but also for solicitors, including scam artists. Autodialers can initiate thousands of phone calls a minute for a very low cost.
Most consumers are familiar with the typical scam calls, such as those that promise to lower interest rates on mortgages or credit cards, contend that loan repayments are past due, offer free vacations or pose as the IRS.
Columbus has been among the top cities for sending out robocalls because the city is home to a large number of telemarketing companies. The most recent statistics indicate that the area has more than 3,300 telemarketing workers, 97 percent more than would be expected in a region this size, said Columbus economist Bill LaFayette, owner of the consulting firm Regionomics.
Legitimate telemarketers work well with the government program because they participate in the Do Not Call program and scrub their call lists monthly, FTC officials said.
Even so, “there are a lot more scammers than there used to be,” Quilici said. “That’s because making calls costs near zero now. There’s no real incentive for scammers not to do it. The economics are pretty attractive. Even if they’re terrible at pitching and don’t get many people to respond, why not? It’s like you’re playing the lottery and maybe you can make $1 million.”
Not only do computer-powered phone systems make it cheap and easy to make calls from anywhere in the world, but the systems also allow callers to provide fake caller-ID information, which helps them hide from law enforcement.
Complicating the problem is that the Do Not Call Registry prohibits only sales calls. Other calls are allowed, including those pertaining to politics, charitable donations, debt collection and survey work.
Although telecommunications companies take the issue of sales calls and robocalls seriously, “there are legitimate business reasons why companies use automated calling systems,” said Steve Van Dinter, a spokesman for Verizon. “For instance … we make automated calls to our customers reminding them that they are late on their bills.”
All robocalls for telemarketing have been illegal since late 2009 unless consumers have consented to such calls, Kopec said. Since then, the government has imposed penalties of more than $500 million on 163 corporate defendants and 121 individuals. One recent case involved a telemarketer responsible for billions of robocalls — including at least 70 million to people on the Do Not Call list.
The FTC also has begun working with companies seeking call-blocking solutions. The 2013 winner of an FTC contest to develop such technology went on to develop Nomorobo, a free service available on most internet-connected home phones.
But even though legal action, technology and education help reduce the number of calls, experience shows that nothing can eliminate them.
After nuisance callers began taking advantage of ultra-cheap phone calls, for instance, security experts recommended that customers use technology — specifically caller ID — to fight back by not answering unidentified callers. In response, robocallers began disguising themselves by using actual numbers such as those used by credit-card companies that never make outbound calls.
Until a more comprehensive system is developed, the best advice remains: “If you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer,” Quilici said. “Most legit callers will leave voice mail.”