"Are your carpets dirty?" "Paying too much on your home mortgage?" "Let us help you lower the interest rate on your credit cards!"
Chances are, one of these annoying messages or something similar has hit your phone recently. Even if you have caller ID to help block unwanted calls, they still sneak through.
Sometimes it's an automated, recorded "robocall." Other times it's a persistent telemarketer who just won't take "No" for an answer.
"It's a constant barrage. It drives me nuts," said Fair Oaks resident Dot Boyd, who said she and her husband typically get three to five unwanted sales calls a week. "They're only trying to do their job, but it's so incessant, said Boyd, who usually either ignores the message or just hangs up.
Like millions of other frustrated consumers, the couple recently relisted their home phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.
Created 10 years ago by the Federal Trade Commission in response to consumer complaints, the registry lets consumers put their personal phone numbers on a no-call list that all telemarketers must abide by or face stiff fines.
In the past decade, more than 221 million phone numbers were added by consumers to the registry, which can stop "most, but not all" unwanted calls, according to the FTC.
The "do not call" list is just one of many tools used by FTC enforcers to pursue the persistent problem of illegal telemarketers and robocallers.
Lawsuits and million-dollar penalties are another. In recent weeks, the FTC has slapped beefy fines on several companies accused of bombarding consumers with unwanted calls.
Last week, it assessed a $3.2 million penalty on a major debt collection company for harassing consumers by phone. In its complaint, the FTC said Texas-based Expert Global Solutions and its subsidiaries repeatedly and illegally called consumers to collect debts: early in the morning, late at night, at their workplace, and after they'd been asked to stop.
In late June, the FTC handed out its biggest civil penalty ever $7.5 million for do-not-call violations on Mortgage Investors Corp., one of the nation's leading refinancers of military veterans' home loans.
Those cases are among more than 100 lawsuits filed against illegal telemarketers in the past decade, including well-known companies such as Dish Network and DirecTV. So far, the FTC says it's handed out more than $126 million in civil penalties and collected $741 million in takebacks from companies and restitution to victims. It's also shut down companies responsible for "billions" of illegal robocalls.
So why do so many of us still get all those irritating calls?
Blame it on technology. Telemarketers once had to employ boiler rooms of callers who dialed households by hand. Today, all that's needed is a phone-and-Internet connection to spew out thousands of calls a minute.
"It's so efficiently cheap to blast out millions of these calls," said Kati Daffan, of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "It's the spam of the telephone."
And software also allows telemarketers to hide their identity by "spoofing" or faking the caller ID that shows up on a consumer's phone.
In the last three years, there's been "an explosion" of consumer complaints about unwanted robocalls, said Daffan, which the FTC presumes is due to the use of more sophisticated phone technologies.
In testimony earlier this month before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Lois Greisman, an associate director with the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau, said illegal robocalls "are still a significant consumer protection problem" that "disturb consumers' privacy and peddle fraudulent goods and services that cause significant economic harm." She said the FTC is using every tool at its disposal to fight them.
That includes a recent FTC-sponsored "Robocall Challenge," which offered a $50,000 prize to anyone devising a technological solution to block illegal robocalls on consumers' cellphones and landlines. Nearly 800 applicants submitted ideas. In April, the FTC announced two co-winners, who came up with software filters that would "blacklist" rogue robocaller numbers and "whitelist" acceptable incoming calls. The software could be used as a mobile phone app, on an electronic device in the consumer's home or provided as part of a phone carrier's service.
The FTC is hoping the contest will spur private businesses to innovate new products, similar to the anti-spam filters and other software sold for personal computers.
In general, the FTC recommends that consumers avoid responding to a robocall, even when asked to press a number that will remove you from the company's marketing list. The only exception is when you ask a live telemarketer to remove you from the business or charity's phone list.
The best response: Hang up.
"We encourage people to just hang up the phone. The last thing you want to do is get added to a list of people likely to engage with scammers," said the FTC's Daffan.
Frustrated consumers are also encouraged to file a do-not-call complaint with the FTC (see box).
"We look at them every day," said Daffan. In the past three months, she said, the FTC's typical complaint volume 200,000 a month has dropped, down to 146,800 in June. "We'd like to think it's because we've made it a little more difficult (for illegal telemarketers). But it's still an unacceptably high level."
In the meantime, consumers like Boyd say they'll do whatever they can to squelch incoming calls from telemarketers, starting with the Do Not Call Registry.
"We don't like to be rude," said Boyd, a self-employed online utilities broker. "It's easier to block the calls (than) have to tell them three times that we're just not interested in what they're selling."
Launched 10 years ago by the Federal Trade Commission, the National Do Not Call Registry lets you put your mobile and home phone numbers on a do-not-call list that telemarketers are required to honor. Those who don't face penalties and lawsuits. The registry is for personal phone numbers; business office numbers and fax lines cannot be registered.
HOW TO SIGN UP
To place your phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, call (888) 382-1222 or go online to: www.DoNotCall.gov.
By phone: You must call from each number you want listed. Both mobile and landline numbers are eligible.
Online: You can register up to three phone numbers at once. Once you've signed up, you'll receive a separate confirmation email for each phone number; click on the link to ensure the phone number is registered.
HOW IT WORKS
Once your number is registered, a telemarketer has 31 days to stop calling. Your registration is permanent. It only ends when you call or go online to remove it.
WHAT IT BANS
Being on the registry makes it illegal for most telemarketers call to you without your permission.
WHO CAN CALL
Political campaigns, charitable groups and telephone surveyors are still permitted to call you. (But a sales call can't masquerade as a survey.)
It's also OK for companies with which you have a "business relationship" to call, or those to whom you've given written permission. That includes companies from which you've made a purchase or to which you've made a payment in the last 18 months.
However, if you ask the business or charity to not call again, it could face $16,000 in possible penalties if it ignores your request. Keep track of the date you made the request.
Also, prerecorded, informational messages are allowed, such as from your health care provider, a pharmacy about a prescription refill, an airline with flight updates, a school with class scheduling changes.
Companies permitted to call you may not do so before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
To prevent "dead air" or hangups, telemarketers must respond within two seconds of you answering.
TO FILE A COMPLAINT
To report unwanted calls, or companies or numbers that appear to be violating the federal restrictions, call or go online to the do-not-call contacts listed above.