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The Do Not Call list was supposed to defeat telemarketers. Now scammy robocalls are out of control. What happened?

Can anything stop robocalls?


Once upon a time, way back in 2003, the federal government set up a list where Americans could register their phone numbers, and telemarketers could no longer call them. It was the National Do Not Call Registry, and it was glorious.

And it really worked—and then, one day, sometime around 2010 or 2011, it didn’t.

Today our phones don’t stop ringing with calls from prerecorded voices. There’s Rachel from card services and someone claiming to be from Microsoft, saying your computer is infected with a virus. Yet another purports to be an Internal Revenue Service rep, threatening that we’ll be arrested if we don’t immediately pay up.

Nothing seems to stop these robocalls. I got one last week, while writing this column, telling me I had won a free stay at a Marriott. Please press 1!

These calls are a blight. The Federal Trade Commission reports consumers lose $350 million annually by falling for these rip-offs. The IRS con alone cost consumers almost $30 million, the Treasury Department reports.

Plenty of people think they know who to blame: the government. “This is yet another example of your tax dollars hard at work,” wrote one commenter earlier this month on a FTC fact sheet about the Do Not Call list. “Another government failure,” wrote “Jim in NJ” on one internet board dedicated to publicizing one particularly troublesome phone number. “Like about anything else in the government. Totally worthless,” another anonymous commenter wrote below an ABC News piece titled “When Do Not Call Doesn’t Stop the Telemarketers.” “You have that right!” another responded.

Actually, no.

The problem is not that the government isn’t enforcing the Do Not Call list. It’s not that it isn’t upholding laws banning automated calls to cellphones. Instead, it’s that telecom giants could take more steps to make life better for customers, and they haven’t. And to top it all off, their lack of aggressive action has allowed the government to take the bulk of the blame. “If you want to be mad at someone,” says Tim Marvin, the campaign manager for the Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign, “call your phone company.”

At least one person is listening. Rep. Jackie Speier recently introduced legislation demanding that telephone companies offer their customers free and easy access to robocall-blocking technology. It’s called the Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones Act—the RoboCop Act. “Technology to block robocalls exists,” the California Democrat noted in the press release announcing her effort last month, “but it’s not widely available or easy to use.”

Why the hell not?

President George W. Bush signed the legislation setting up the Do Not Call Registry in 2003, after years of consumer complaints about pushy telemarketers. The public reaction was ecstatic. After all, when Time magazine conducted a poll in 1999 to determine the worst ideas of the 20th century, telemarketing came in fourth, beating out such worthy contenders as the Titanic, the Treaty of Versailles, and the Red Sox’ decision to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the day the Do Not Call Registry opened to the public, its website was visited 1,000 times a second, with 750,000 numbers signing up by the end of the business day. A poll conducted by Harris Interactive in early 2004 determined that more than three-quarters of those who registered their numbers said the action resulted in a significant reduction in unwanted telephone solicitations.

I don’t want to oversell the Do Not Call Registry. It was never perfect. Politicians were exempt from following the law. Charities, too. Ditto surveys. It did, however, make owning a phone much less bothersome—until technology rendered it all but obsolete.

The same voice over internet protocol technology that eliminated the long-distance telephone surcharge also revolutionized telemarketing. Companies could set up shop outside the United States—and outside the reach of regulatory authorities—where for pennies they could blast consumers with prerecorded, autodialed calls. They could also use spoofing technology to disguise where their calls were coming from. A call claiming to be from Microsoft, for instance, might show a 425 area code. That’s Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft is headquartered. And the IRS scam? A 202 number for Washington, D.C., would show up on caller ID.

Last year, the FTC received more than 3 million complaints about telemarketers. That’s more than triple the number in 2009. If current trends continue, there will be more than 5 million complaints by the end of 2016. The feds do what they can, but it’s an all but futile battle. They’ve handed out more than $1.2 billion in fines. They’ve collected less than 10 percent of that sum. But it’s hard to chase people down in Russia. Or Bangladesh. Or India. Or wherever that call about a free cruise (you’ve won!) really comes from.

Until recently, many telecom companies claimed they lacked the legal authority to block the calls. But last year, the Federal Communications Commission gave them the explicit authority to do just that. Since then, some have argued that blocking robocalls could lead to legitimate automated calls also getting blocked—you know, things like weather alerts.

So how do we end the madness? The Consumers Union, the famed consumer advocacy organization, claims it would be possible for phone companies to offer their consumers easy access to services such as Nomorobo, which works on VoIP lines to block most robocalls. Then there are apps that would make a serious dent in robocalls to cellphones—which is a good thing, since the vast majority of automated calls to cellphones are illegal thanks to a 1991 law, whether or not the number is listed on the Do Not Call registry. 

Traditional landlines are the most difficult to protect from robocalls, but there’s still hope. In Canada, which also has trouble enforcing its do-not-call initiative, there’s Primus, which offers something called Telemarketing Guard, which works to block robocalls on both traditional landline and broadband lines. The company claims almost 90 percent of its customers cite that as the No. 1 reason they stick with Primus; it also claims the service would work in the United States.

Not all telecom companies are standing in the way of progress. Time Warner, for instance, makes it easy for its customers to sign up for Nomorobo. Others offer access to helpful technology but don’t exactly make it easy. Take Verizon, which also offers its Fios Digital Voice customers access to Nomorobo but requires customers to complete a multipart setup before the program will work. Still more could stand to be more helpful, particularly when it comes to their landlines. AT&T, for example, allows customers to block a mere 10 numbers and all anonymous calls in return for an additional $8.50 a month. (Talk about profiting off of misery!) But many robocalls aren’t anonymous in the usual sense. They’re using spoofing technology that misleads recipients about the origin of the call. 

In many ways telephone customers are a captive audience. We all need phones. At the same time, it appears that few people even know there are fixes—or even the possibility of fixes—that can help battle the robocall problem. In this way, the Do Not Call list turned into a blessing and a curse. It battled telemarketing successfully for a time. But when technological progress rendered it just shy of useless, it was easy to blame the government for failing to police companies that didn’t honor the registry. That’s not what happened, but we didn’t know it.

Then the telecom giants, by dragging their heels on offering solutions, only compounded the problem. Yet there are consequences to making the government look incompetent—consequences that go way beyond the particular issue of robocalls. It weakens our faith in the feds’ competence, undermining support for needed initiatives. As the belief becomes more pervasive, people don’t even see successful government programs as government programs. (Remember the infamous “Keep government out of Medicare” signs at Tea Party rallies?) It leaves us feeling helpless, angry, and alone—venting on the internet, because no one else appears to be listening.

So what can you do? Well, you might consider contacting your member of Congress and suggesting he or she support Speier’s legislation. And acquire some form of software or service to stop the calls, if you can. And remember this: Nomorobo wouldn’t exist if not for government action. Inventor Aaron Foss created it in an attempt to win a $50,000 prize from the FTC, which sponsored a contest in 2013 to encourage private industry to come up with ways to stop robocalls.

I’d tell you more, but my phone is ringing. Something about a free cruise. I’ve won!