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Most uninvited "robocalls" become illegal Tuesday, but not Rachel from cardholder services

Posted by: under Businesses in hot water, Civil liberties, Complaint sagas Updated: September 1, 2009 - 2:08 PM

By James Eli Shiffer

As faithful Whistleblower readers know, I've been on the hunt for Rachel from cardholder services for months now. I'm not the only one, given that her urgent prerecorded voice has interrupted enough lives that some people have started their own investigations. Rachel is an elusive one, though. She sometimes uses the names Michelle and Heather, and even when you play along with her pitch to lower your credit card interest rate, the live humans who come on the line usually hang up when “customers” ask them too many questions.

Starting today, most commercial "robocalls" became illegal, unless you're one of those people who enjoys them so much that you give permission, in writing, to the robocalling companies to continue. Violators can pay up to $16,000 per phone call.

Here's how the Federal Trade Commission's honcho explained it in the agency's announcement

“American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “Starting September 1, this bombardment of prerecorded pitches, senseless solicitations, and malicious marketing will be illegal. If consumers think they’re being harassed by robocallers, they need to let us know, and we will go after them.”

Such consumer-friendly vitriol warms the heart of a Whistleblower. But will it stop Rachel? That's what I asked FTC spokesman Mitch Katz. The question made him laugh.

"I'm not sure. That's kind of a tricky question," Katz told me. "Because credit card companies aren't covered by these new regulations."

That's not a reflection of Rachel's lobbying might, per se. The FTC has no power over credit card companies.

Since Rachel is calling people on the do-not-call list and hiding her real identity by spoofing or blocking caller ID, she's already breaking the law. But it turns out she's not the only exempt from the robocall ban. Purely informational messages, politicians, charities and nonprofits, banks and telephone companies are among those still allowed to make prerecorded calls.

One major category of hated robocall, the "your car warranty is expiring," is included. That's pleasing to Barb Grieman of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota. Her agency has gotten plenty of calls from people enraged about these calls, and the fact that pressing "1" to stop the calls only seems to invite more of them.

"This is going to make our callers very happy," Grieman told me.

Meanwhile, people irritated by the constant pitches from cardholder services have turned into amateur sleuths. One of the most energetic is Marc Mims, a software developer who lives in the state of Washington. He's on the do-not-call list, but the calls come anyway, perhaps a dozen in the past few months.

"Those guys have been driving me absolutely nuts," Mims told me.

Mims has taken to playing along with the pitch to get a customer service to cough up information as simple as a call back number and the name of the company.

He provided me with one callback number. Earlier this month, I called that number. A woman answered. I asked for Rachel from cardholder services. There was a pause, and then she indicated I had reached the right place. I identified myself. She didn't. She did say the company was "Financial Centers," and was based in Florida. "What we do is negotiate interest rates for people and lower them," she said. She told me I'd need to speak to someone else.

Then a man who identified himself only as Chris got on the line. His company used an "advertising service" to do its telemarketing, so he didn't know whether Rachel worked for him or not. Then, later in our conversation, he said Rachel did not in fact make a pitch for his company - Financial Centers prefers a computer-generated, identity-free voice. And his company doesn't knowingly violate any do not call restrictions, he said.

Most likely, Rachel does work for "hundreds of companies," he said. If I really wanted to find her, I could type the words "voice broadcasting" into Google, Chris told me.

No one, apparently, wants to admit to knowing Rachel. Are you out there in voice broadcasting world somewhere?

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