Robocalls on the Rise: Who Is Responsible?

Nearly 4 million people filed federal complaints about telemarketing last year.

October 16, 2012, 2:25 AM

Oct. 16, 2012 — -- They pretend to be concerned about your car. They pretend to know your credit card balance.

It could be the No. 1 nuisance in the American home.

Robocalls, pre-recorded sales pitches stating the caller has "critical information about your automobile warranty." Or your credit card. And the caller desperately wants you to respond, even offering consumers the option to "press the number one" to speak to a live operator.

But don't do it.

"Our advice is straightforward. Hang up," Lois Greisman, director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Marketing Practices Division, said. "There are virtually no legitimate marketers trying to reach you to sell you something using a prerecorded call."

Robocalls are illegal, and so far the FTC has brought 15 cases against robocall rings.

"In so doing we've shut down literally billions of illegal unwanted calls," Greisman said. "We certainly look at complaint volume. That's an incredibly important index that tells us about the scope of the operation."

But according to a FTC report issued Tuesday, it's a crime that keeps on growing. Nearly 4 million people filed official federal complaints about telemarketing last year, up by a million, with the biggest complaints throughout the year focusing on the "recorded message" versus "requesting an entity to stop calling."

The FTC tells ABC News two things have led to the jump in calls and the complaints—easy access and technology.

Entire websites are designed to set up do-it-yourself robocall blasts for only 4 cents a call for millions of blasts with only three clicks of the mouse. From a PC, often on the other side of the world, the robocaller inputs a list of phone numbers, inserts a fake caller ID and the sales pitch, and sends it off to a computer program that blasts the recorded message to every number on the list.

Shirley Syster of Indiana is one of the millions of people who get these calls daily.

"I would get four or five of them a day," she said.

She hung up and complained to the FTC, who along with the state of Indiana, is suing the robocaller who promised to lower her credit card interest if it could just get her credit card number.

"They started asking you how much money you owed on your credit card or what your interest rate was, and they'd say, Well, we can lower your interest rate and we can save you this much money and it won't cost you anything at all," Syster explains. "Then they tell me they are going to charge nine-hundred and 90-some dollars to my credit card."

Syster was lucky: She outwitted the scammers, playing along until she got enough information to give to the FTC. But many fall prey to the scam, losing hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

"This is much worse than annoyance," Greisman said. "These are illegal telemarketing pitches and our goal is to stop them." Greisman added that although many are largely illegal enterprises, there are some legitimate uses for robocalls, such as alerting parents to school closures or customers opting in to receive sales notifications.

"Retailers out there that may want to go to their best customers or go to any customer and say, 'Can we call you once a year or twice a year when we have our big event?' and that customer is more than happy to receive that prerecorded call," she said. "So there are legitimate commercial uses for them, but the vast majority we are seeing today are flat-out illegal."

Political robocalls are exempt from FTC laws. While cell phones, governed by the FCC not FTC, are always illegal to call with any prerecorded or autodialed message—even political—the only exception is if you have given express consent to be contacted.

Two crimes in one, the growing robocall itself and the fraudulent pitch that follows, and the only defense is not technical at all. Hang up.

Consumers can sign up for the Do Not Call Registry by going here.

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