Claudia Buck

Robocalls vex, defraud consumers

300 dpi Rick Nease illustration of man being driven mad by robocalls. (The Detroit Free Press/MCT)
300 dpi Rick Nease illustration of man being driven mad by robocalls. (The Detroit Free Press/MCT) The Detroit Free Press

Robocalls: one of the most maddening aspects of answering the phone. For some, the automated, unwanted calls are a mere nuisance. For others, they’re an extremely annoying – and potentially fraudulent – disturbance.

Theresa and Lyle Nicholas, both retired state employees, are fed up.

“It’s a big bother, not just a little thing,” said Theresa, who lives with her husband in a Sacramento seniors community. She said the early-morning calls often awaken her husband, who has health issues, and interrupt their dinner hours.

Although the couple are on the national Do Not Call registry, often turn off their phone’s ringer and have a phone service that allows them to block certain numbers, it’s not enough to stop the deluge. Some of the computer-generated calls use phony names, appearing on their caller ID as the sheriff’s office or IRS.

“Right now, we’re getting about three a day. But there was a time when we’d get five or six a day, from just before 8 o’clock in the morning until 9:30 at night,” Theresa Nicholas said. “It’s extremely annoying.”

Millions of consumers have similar complaints. Automated robocalls – typically unsolicited sales pitches for products or services – are not a new problem but are “always on top of the list (of things) that annoy and frustrate consumers,” said Consumers Union spokesman Michael McCauley, in San Francisco. Aside from being an annoyance, many robocalls are ruses to lure consumers into financial scams and fraud, he noted.

Last month, Consumers Union issued a plea to major U.S. telecommunications providers, urging them to provide free tools so consumers can halt the flood of robocalls, estimated to be in the billions a year. It created an online petition that it says has 200,000 signatures as of last week.

“We’re all on the Do Not Call list, but these robocalls are rampant. It’s high time that phone companies help their customers stop illegal, unwanted robocalls,” said McCauley.

Although many phone companies offer call-blocking features, they can require a fee or upgraded service plan.

In San Francisco, AT&T spokeswoman Donna Glass referred questions about robocalls to the U.S. Telecom Association, which represents major phone carriers. On its website, the USTA acknowledges that robocalls are a global problem, but states: “The current legal framework does not allow companies to decide for the consumer which calls should be blocked.”

Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo.com, a free anti-robocall software solution, says the tools that phone companies make available – such as letting consumers input 10 or so numbers they deem intrusive – are woefully ineffective.

“Robocallers change their numbers every few hours. They’re blasting out millions or billions of these calls every day,” Foss said. Asking the consumer to input individual phone numbers to be blocked works “for certain numbers like your crazy ex-boyfriend. But it’s not a modern, robocall-blocking solution,” Foss said. Noting that Nomorobo detects more than 100 new auto-dialed numbers daily, “There’s no way anyone can add 125 new robocallers to their (blocked) list every day. That’s ridiculous.”

In 2013, Foss, a Long Island software developer, won the Federal Trade Commission’s first contest offering up to $50,000 in prize money to creators of robocall software solutions. Nomorobo.com blocks auto-dialed calls to consumers’ landlines, using an algorithm that detects computer-generated calls, typically a phone number that is issuing thousands of outgoing calls daily.

As of last week, Foss said, Nomorobo has some 205,000 users and has detected and blocked 17.7 million automated calls.

This week, the FTC announced two new contests designed to encourage tech developers to come up with more ways to thwart incoming robocalls. One is aptly named “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back.” (For details, see box.)

Robin Grubel, a widow and retired teacher in Sacramento, says she gets about three robocalls a day. “It’s a never-ending cycle. ... I get more robocalls than calls from friends and family.”

Grubel ignores incoming calls, which means she doesn’t pick up when legitimate calls – from friends and family – come in. “It’s like I don’t have full use of my landline. I’m at their bidding if I answer my phone.”

Even more unnerving to consumers like Grubel is the prospect of unwanted calls on mobile phones, which occur but with far less frequency than on landlines. “It’s already a nightmare,” she said, “but it’d be horrible if it got to your cellphone in the same way.”

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

GETTING RID OF PHONE SPAM

National Do Not Call Registry: Sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission, it’s free to register your home or cellphone numbers. Once you’ve registered, telemarketing companies have 31 days to remove your phone numbers from their caller lists. There’s no expiration once your numbers are on the list. (Note: The DNC registry does not block calls from charities, political organizations, debt collectors or telephone survey firms, or companies with whom you already do business.) To register your phones or file a complaint, go to donotcall.gov or (888) 382-1222.

Federal Communications Commission: The FCC regulates phone companies and has consumer tips and complaint information at fcc.gov.

Federal Trade Commission: Its website, ftc.gov/robocalls, has information on preventing robocalls, filing complaints, as well as videos of consumer tips and solutions.

Contest revenge: This month, the FTC announced two new 2015 contests for tech developers to create tools that consumers can use to block unwanted robocalls. The first, which offers $50,000 in total cash prizes, is Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back and has a June 15 deadline. The second contest, DetectaRobo, awards bragging rights but no cash prize and is tied to the National Day of Civic Hacking on June 6. For details and deadlines, visit ftc.gov/strikeback and ftc.gov/detectarobo.

NoMoRobo: Founded in 2013 by Aaron Foss, winner of the FTC’s first robocall contest, NoMoRobo is a free online solution to block most incoming robocalls. It’s not available to all phone company users. After consumers sign up their home phone numbers, Nomorobo uses an algorithm that detects auto-generated incoming calls, then answers the robocall milliseconds before it rings on the consumer’s landline. It says it does not block automated calls from legitimate sources, such as messages or reminders from medical providers, schools or emergency services. It’s at nomorobo.com.

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