Complaints about automated phone calls skyrocket

Robert Madison talks about his battles with “Ann, with credit services,” an automated marketing call he regularly receives. Despite efforts to stop the calls, they keep coming. “I’m fed up,” Madison says. Complaints to the government are up sharply about unwanted phone solicitations, raising questions about how well the federal “do-not-call” registry is working. Enlarge photo

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Robert Madison talks about his battles with “Ann, with credit services,” an automated marketing call he regularly receives. Despite efforts to stop the calls, they keep coming. “I’m fed up,” Madison says. Complaints to the government are up sharply about unwanted phone solicitations, raising questions about how well the federal “do-not-call” registry is working.

WASHINGTON – So much for silence from telemarketers at the cherished dinner hour, or any other hour of the day.

Complaints to the government are up sharply about unwanted phone solicitations, raising questions about how well the federal “do-not-call” registry is working. The biggest category of complaint: those annoying prerecorded pitches called robocalls that hawk everything from lower credit-card interest rates to new windows for your home.

Robert Madison, 43, of Shawnee, Kan., says he gets automated calls almost daily from “Ann, with credit services,” offering to lower his interest rates.

“I am completely fed up,” Madison said in an interview. “I’ve repeatedly asked them to take me off their call list.” When he challenges their right to call, the solicitors become combative, he said.

Madison, who works for a software company, says his phone number has been on the do-not-call list for years. Because he hasn’t made any progress getting “Ann” to stop calling, Madison has started to file complaints about her to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the list.

Amid fanfare from consumer advocates, the federal do-not-call list was put in place nearly a decade ago as a tool to limit telemarketing sales calls to people who didn’t want to be bothered. The registry has more than 209 million phone numbers on it. That’s a significant chunk of the country, considering that there are about 84 million residential customers with traditional landline phones and plenty more people with cellphone numbers, which can also be placed on the list.

Telemarketers are supposed to check the list at least every 31 days for numbers they can’t call. But some are calling anyway, and complaints about phone pitches are climbing even as the number of telemarketers checking the registry has dropped dramatically.

Government figures show monthly robocall complaints have climbed from about 65,000 in October 2010 to more than 212,000 this April. More general complaints from people asking a telemarketer to stop calling them also rose during that period, from about 71,000 to 182,000.

At the same time, fewer telemarketers are checking the FTC list to see which numbers are off limits. In 2007, more than 65,000 telemarketers checked the list. Last year, only about 34,000 did so.

Despite those numbers, the FTC says the registry is doing an effective job fighting unwanted sales calls.

“It’s absolutely working,” Lois Greisman, associate director of the agency’s marketing practices division, said in an interview with The Associated Press. But, she said, “the proliferation of robocalls creates a challenge for us.”

Greisman said prerecorded messages weren’t used as a major marketing tool in 2003, when the registry began. “In part because of technology and in part because of greater competitiveness in the marketplace, they have become the marketing vehicle of choice for fraudsters,” she said.

For people trying to scam people out of their money, it’s an attractive option. Robocalls are hard to trace and cheap to make.

With an autodialer, millions of calls can be blasted out in a matter of hours, bombarding people in a struggling economy with promises of debt assistance and cheap loans. Even if a consumer does not have a phone number on the do-not-call list, robocalls are illegal. A 2009 rule specifically banned this type of phone sales pitch unless a consumer has given written permission to a company to call.

Political robocalls and automated calls from charities, or informational robocalls, such as an airline calling about a flight delay, are exempt from the ban. But those exemptions are being abused, too, with consumers complaining of getting calls that begin as a legitimate call, say from a charity or survey, but then eventually switch to an illegal telemarketing sales pitch.