Not even the Feds can stop dreaded robocallers

Rachel is ruining the telephone.

Every time I see an out-of-town number on my Caller ID, I assume it's robocalling Rachel from Credit Card Services. I answer with hesitation.

Her repetitive calls are illegal. Fines are steep. Yet Rachel keeps calling and calling. Do Not Call lists be damned.

The feds says these companies use pre-recorded voices (Rachel) and then live people to pitch worthless credit card rate reduction programs in return for steep up-front fees. These bandits don't need guns for their stickups.

I always figured that if the federal government were to marshal its resources, Uncle Sam could stop this scourge of endless autodialing. After all, if Big Brother can tape phone calls and store e-mails of millions of people, why can't Big Brother stop Rachel?

That's why I was thrilled to hear that the all-powerful Federal Trade Commission called a "Robocall Summit" to figure this whole thing out. Until now, the FTC hasn't come up with a way to stop telemarketers who use the latest technology to make thousands of calls a minute. Each call shows false Caller ID information and costs pennies to make.

So what's the take-away from that Robocall Summit? Sadly, Big Brother doesn't have the answer. But don't fret. The government is trying something different.

The FTC has announced a contest to find the best way to knock off Rachel. The FTC Challenge offers a $50,000 "cash prize" to anyone who can "create an innovative solution that will block illegal robocalls on landlines and mobile phones."

The contest is open to individuals, small teams or companies with fewer than 10 employees. Deadline: Jan. 17, 2013.

A $50,000 bounty now hangs over Rachel's head. That's a pittance considering the millions of annoying and illegal calls that go out every year, making a mockery of federal and state Do Not Call lists.

It's against federal law to make telemarketing calls to households without their prior written consent. That means most of these robocalls are illegal. The federal penalty is $16,000 per call. But calls are usually routed through various countries and are difficult to trace.

I hope somebody wins this prize.

Past success

For sure, Rachel hasn't had a free ride. Mississippi regulators fined Roy W. Cox Jr. of California almost $1 million. His five companies used the name Credit Card Services, regulators said.

Meanwhile, the FTC this year mailed refund checks to 4,400 consumers who received calls not from Rachel, but from Heather, selling similar services. Refunds are between $31 and $1,300 depending on an individual's losses.

The FTC says that companies involved falsely promised they could lower credit-card rates for customers for a $1,000 fee. They ignored earlier promises to give full refunds to unhappy customers.

In a third case, the FTC and Arizona officials last month accused various companies calling themselves "Cardmember Services" of falsely offering customers zero-percent interest rates on their credit cards. Although the calls may be difficult to trace, individuals involved live in Nevada, Arizona, Ohio and Florida, the FTC says.

Stop annoying calls

How do you stop these calls? When Rachel, Heather or anyone else interrupts your dinner, hang up on them immediately. Don't talk. Don't push any buttons to get on their Do Not Call list or to talk to a human. Don't even say goodbye.

Hang up.

Repeat in subsequent calls.

Mary Boyd contacted The Watchdog recently after she received calls telling her she won $860,000 in a sweepstakes, along with a new car. "The calls were relentless," she said. "Although I knew from the beginning it was a scam, I did not think too much of it until they described my house and also knew that I was single."

Boyd shouldn't worry. It takes seconds on the Internet to learn where somebody lives, look at a photo of the house and guess their marital status. But any conversation with "sweepstakes organizers" should never have gone beyond the first sentence. Boyd didn't hang up fast enough.

Watchdog Nation tip: With persistent, unwanted telemarketers, politely say: "We have a recording device on this phone. We are working with lawyers and investigators to bring action against your company for violations. The longer you stay on the line, the easier it is for us to trace you."

Then put the phone down, walk away, come back a few minutes later and hang up. Repeat until calls stop.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter: @davelieber