Whistleblower: FTC takes on robocallers

  • Article by: JANE FRIEDMANN
  • Updated: October 15, 2012 - 10:00 AM

A Federal Trade Commission summit to be webcast live Thursday will explore ways to stop unwanted robocalls from telemarketers such as "Rachel from Cardholder Services."

On occasion, Whistleblower writes about the successful shutdown of a robocalling operation that placed billions of automated sales calls for bogus credit card rate-reductions, car warranties or home security systems. The perpetrators are fined millions of dollars, told to relinquish their Lamborghinis and stop being naughty.

Readers break out the champagne only to pour it down the drain hours or days later when Rachel from Cardholder Services or Stacy from Account-holder Services interrupts their celebration to offer them another money-saving deal.

Readers then call or e-mail to lament that the sales pitches continue.

The federal government wants to break this terrible cycle. So it's sponsoring a "robocall summit" on Thursday in Washington, DC.

"We want to bring together people that have a stake in stopping [the calls], be it consumers, enforcement agencies, government agencies, the telecom companies and other companies that also work on technological solutions," Will Maxson, Federal Trade Commission program manager for Do-Not-Call enforcement, said Friday.

The agency is responding to rising numbers of complaints from people like Minneapolis resident Allan Hillesheim, who says, "I have gotten, I am not exaggerating one bit, at least 500 calls from them. 99.9% of the time it's Rachel."

Milt Branch of Denver said he used to get eight or nine robocalls per day. The do-not-call list and the 2009 ban on telemarketing robocalls dramatically reduced the number of calls, but they've "gradually crept back in."

"Rachel is like the undead, nothing you can do can kill her," Branch wrote to Whistleblower last year.

The robo-world summit

Though the Federal Trade Commission says it "has brought 88 enforcement actions against 250 corporate and 194 individual defendants involving robocalls and Do Not Call violations," the fictitious, yet very real, Rachel and her ilk are hard to vanquish.

As long as you have a computer, you don't have to hustle out to D.C. to attend the FTC summit. It will be webcast live. Questions can be tweeted or submitted via Facebook.

Thursday morning's discussion will be on the current state of robocalling technology, enforcement limitations, and the impact on consumers. The afternoon session will focus on how they can be stopped.

The summit has the potential to bring together the nation's best and brightest. It should be required viewing for all schoolchildren preparing for their next science fair. There's no reason why we shouldn't tap into the most techno-savvy demographic to come up with a way to ensure an American family can eat supper in peace.

(If we get one more call from Rachel there'll be no pudding for you, young lady.)

It should be said that only telemarketers are prohibited from making robocalls. The technology can be used legally for political or informational purposes, such as by pharmacies and schools.

And in the spirit of a free society, a consumer does have the right to OPT IN to receiving telemarketing robocalls. But, you can stuff that group of Americans into one trim phone booth, and scammers could just as easily dial the phone themselves in that case.

Both Hillesheim and Branch have developed strategies to cope with the daily intrusions.

"I blow a whistle into the phone," Hillesheim said.

"One [caller] stayed on [the line and] said, 'Well I'm glad you got that out of your system.' But most of the time it's a hang up right away," Hillesheim said.

Branch says he sometimes plays along with the sales pitch "until they finally realize that I'm jacking them around. Most of the time they end up cussing me out and I end up cussing them out."

Who are these robocallers?

Because telemarketing robocalls are illegal, we know they're criminals.

And they don't have to be all that tech-savvy, either.

Robocallers use voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), a web technology that enables calls to be made via the Internet. All a scammer needs is a good Internet connection and an agreement with an auto-dialing business, which allows them to make millions of calls from anywhere in the world, according to Maxson. To make calls look like they're coming from somewhere they're not, a practice called spoofing, it's a simple matter of changing one line of computer code, he said.

We also know robocallers are not very creative. Hillesheim said that every call from Rachel has the "same actual [recorded] voice."

In a parallel universe, there's probably a convention for robocallers where participants wear hats fashioned from pages of the federal Do-No-Call List. Rachel will be the keynote speaker. But there won't be much need to compare notes - they're identical.

So does Maxson really believe he can stop Rachel?

"There are lots of people that have really interesting ideas about how to break the caller-ID spoofing problem, how to stop these mass-calling events ... how to block the calls, and how we can work to track calls around the country and around the world," he said.

  • FTC ROBOCALL SUMMIT

    When: Thursday, Oct. 18, 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

    Where: Washington, D.C.

    What: Experts in law enforcement, telemarketing and telecommunications will discuss the current state of robocalling and explore solutions. View the agenda at tinyurl.com/8lwzfat.

    Watch live online by following instructions on www.ftc.gov, available shortly before the summit.

    Twitter handle: @FTC

    Discussion: During webcast, tweet questions using the hashtag #FTCrobo or ask questions via facebook at tinyurl.com/78g99qv.

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