How robocalls scam the Do Not Call List

Here's why you may still be receiving unwanted calls, even though you're listed on the Do Not Call List

Published: April 06, 2015 01:30 PM

Like millions of Americans, you’ve probably listed your phone number on the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. So why are you still receiving all those unwanted robocalls?

Established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the DNC ought to work. Once you register your residential telephone number – including wireless numbers – commercial telemarketers are not allowed to call those numbers.  The only exceptions are: calls from organizations with which you have established a business relationship; calls for which you have given prior written permission; calls which are not commercial or do not include unsolicited advertisements, such as school closings, tornado warnings or other civic notices; and calls by or on behalf of tax-exempt non-profit organizations, which includes political solicitations. (Although there’s a slight difference between telemarketing and robocalls—the latter are unsolicited auto-dialed telemarketing calls that are either pre-recorded or from a live person—most people conflate the two terms, and so do we.)

It’s typically illegal to make a telemarketing call to consumers who haven't given their express consent to receive such calls. However, many robocallers simply ignore the laws, betting that the regulators are too busy to come after them. And, unfortunately, they’re often right.

Read more about how to put an end to robocalls.

As reported in a recent article by our colleagues at the Consumerist, FTC associate director and top scam-spotter Lois Greisman explained that the number of telemarketing complaints has been “skyrocketing” in recent years. The FTC receives anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000 complaints per month, she said, and calls with pre-recorded messages are responsible for around 60 percent of those complaints.  

That’s because the same Internet-powered phone systems that have brought down the cost of making a phone call for consumers also make it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world. And the ability to spoof—to display fake caller ID information—makes it difficult for regulators and law enforcement to track them down.

FCC deputy chief Kristi Thompson explained that it can take her anywhere from five to ten subpoenas to trace a single robocall back to its origin—and that’s only if the information is still there. Phone service providers don’t hold on to all their records indefinitely. For example, AT&T alone processes 3 billion phone records each day.

Furthermore, points out Aaron Foss, whose Nomorobo call-blocking service shared first place in the FTC’s first robocall-related competition, robocallers change their numbers as often as every hour, making it nearly impossible to identify them.

Telephone companies offer some call-blocking options, but they typically put the onus on the consumer to create a blacklist of numbers to nix . And, this sort of service offers next to no protection against spoofers that frequently change their numbers.

Signing up with the Do Not Call Registry is worthwhile as an initial shield. But Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, believes the telecom industry can do more to protect its customers in the first place. Its campaign to push the major phone companies to provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach your phone has already garnered over 230,000 signatures. Keep up the momentum and make your voice heard by signing the petition at our website.

— Catherine Fredman

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