By virtue of my six-year quest to hunt down Rachel from Cardholder Services, I have become the go-to guy on the Web for anyone trying to escape her. My Sunday column (pasted below) was inspired by Frank Adler, a political philosophy professor at Macalester who needs peace and quiet in his home in St. Paul in order to do his scholarship. Adler called a few weeks ago to declare that the Do Not Call Registry was an abject failure. I'll let you decide if that's true, but I am ready to clear up some items readers brought up after the story.
Wayne Nelson pointed out that I neglected to put the phone number to call to register your number. That's 888 382-1222.
Mary Ann Thoma, who works in market research, informed me that the Do Not Call Registry allows calls from organizations solely doing research, such as public opinion surveys. People are welcome to ask to be put on these organizations' internal do-not-call lists, but federal law allows these calls.
Many people have shared their strategies, none of which I'm endorsing. Some people try to waste the telemarketers' time by playing along with the pitch, and then leaving the phone off the hook, or pursuing some pretend filibuster.
Then there's Nomorobo, a technology to block known robocallers that emerged from the FTC's Robocall Challenge. The FTC describes it "as a cloud-based solution that would use 'simultaneous ringing,' which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. In the Nomorobo solution, this second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user."
One reader, Steve Payne, says it works, and it's free so far. And Nomorobo says it has just expanded its service to do something reader Jenni Schnobrich wants: Blocking political calls, which are exempt from the Do Not Call Registry.
Here's the column:
People who put their phone numbers on the Do Not Call list reported a staggering 3.7 million violations last year. That doesn’t include the zillions who never file complaints about the nightly interruptions by Rachel from Cardholder Services and her prerecorded cronies.
Yet the man at the helm of the Do Not Call registry says that’s not a sign that the decade-old list is failing. When was the last time you got a telemarketing call from an actual human, asks Mitch Katz, spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission.
True, the Do Not Call list has mostly put an end to telemarketing calls from people you can personally scream at. But they have been replaced by robocalls, dialed by the billions from unscrupulous companies in distant “boiler rooms,” their originating numbers easily masked with spoofing software.
Most folks in the world would gladly trade malaria, hyperinflation and death squads for unwanted telephone calls. Yet those calls evoke a peculiar rage among Americans, because it’s a problem that should be so easy to solve.
The Do Not Call list is a victim of its own deceptive simplicity. Go todonotcall.gov, type in your phone number and blissful tranquillity will be yours. The registry now includes more than 223 million numbers, 4.2 million of them in Minnesota alone.
It doesn’t cost taxpayers any money because it’s funded by the fees law-abiding companies pay to download the registry, Katz said. For a time, after it debuted in 2003, everybody could tell that Do Not Call made a difference.
But in 2012, the number of complaints of violation hit a record 3.8 million, more than double what it was in 2010. These days, plenty of folks feel betrayed. One of them is Frank Adler. He’s a Macalester College professor whose land line in St. Paul is besieged every night with offers of medical alert systems and credit card rate reductions, despite its Do Not Call registration. “From a public policy perspective, I wonder why they continue to exist,” Adler said.
Bikram Bandy has talked to people like Adler, and he understands their feelings. A Washington lawyer, Bandy serves in the FTC’s rotating position of Do Not Call Program Coordinator with a focus on enforcing the law. The FTC can point to evidence that it’s taking the problem seriously.
A rule adopted in 2009 makes most robocalls illegal on every line. In its war against Rachel from Cardholder Services, that elusive pitchwoman for dubious debt relief, the FTC has shut down companies responsible for 2.5 billion robocalls. Last year, the FTC slapped its largest Do Not Call fine ever, $7.5 million, on a mortgage company accused of calling 5.4 million prohibited numbers and making deceptive pitches, to boot.
As soon as one Rachel company is shut down, another pops up, hydralike. So the FTC also is putting its effort into finding a technical solution by sponsoring “Robocall summits” and encouraging the spread of call-filtering and spoof-killing technology.
“We feel that call-blocking solutions that get embraced and rolled out to more and more Americans, plus the ability to end spoofing — those two technological innovations will be game changers,” Bandy said.
Bandy said that people have slain this kind of beast before. Not along ago, inboxes got so much spam about organ enlargement, prescription painkillers and get-rich pitches from the widow of Mobutu Sese Seko that some thought e-mail would collapse. Spam filters came to the rescue, at least enough that e-mail became safe for work again.
The FTC says it’s working with phone companies to make the technical changes happen. But telephone companies say Federal Communications Commission rules may make it illegal for them to use call-blocking software.
Last week, attorneys general from 37 states, including Minnesota, as well as Puerto Rico and Guam requested an opinion from the FCC about whether that’s really true. “Hopefully, we can all work cooperatively to find a solution to the unwanted telemarketing problem in the United States,” they wrote.
When that happens, please don’t call to let us know.