Note: This column originally ran May 12, 2009 — and I’m still getting robocalls at home and work.
If your household is anything like the Caseys’, you once felt besieged by dinnertime telephone calls offering all manner of unwise purchases.
And back in 2003, when you triumphantly registered for “Do Not Call,” you might have thought, “Hooray, this is the end of those pesky phone spammers.”
But there is both good news and bad news on the telephone soliciting front.
The bad news is an irritating loophole in federal regulations that arose last summer. The regs are long and involved, but essentially they allow robots to make unsolicited sales calls to your house, even when live people cannot. No matter if you put your number on Do Not Call.
Let’s take a recent Thursday afternoon when I was trying to get some work done from home.
The phone rings. A stern mechanical voice is on the other end.
“We have been trying to reach you. Your eligibility for extending your vehicle warranty is about to expire. Press 1 if you’d like to be connected to a representative. Press 2 to remove your name from our list.
I hit 2 and the line disconnects. (I actually got another three of these robo calls at my work number last week.)
Thirty minutes later, the phone rings. Again, it’s a mechanical voice.
“We have been trying to reach you. Your eligibility to lower your credit card interest rate is about to expire. Press 1 to talk to a representative. Press 2 to remove your name from our records.”
This is the third or fourth time this particular robot has called. I have pressed 2 for each of the previous calls. This time I press 1 and a man answers.
“Who is this?” I ask.
“This is Jim, sir. Are you interested in lowering your credit card interest rate?”
“No, Jim, I’m interested in you not calling me again.”
“I didn’t call you, sir. You pressed 1 and connected to me.”
“Your damn robot called me, Jim. And I don’t like it one bit.”
“If you don’t want the robot to call again, press 2 the next time it calls, sir.”
“What is your last name, Jim?” I asked. “What’s the name of your company?”
He hangs up with a click.
Here is the good news, folks: That dumb federal loophole closes Sept. 1. After then, robo sales calls will be banned, unless you agree in writing, in advance, to receive them.
Is there anything we can do in the meantime?
For that we turn to Joshua Scism, a spokesman for the American Teleservices Association, the industry group for telemarketers and other call centers. The industry employs about 5 million people, and as you might imagine, it has felt a bit under siege since Do Not Call took effect.
Scism said the vast majority of his industry has no interest in contacting people who don’t wish to be called. It’s a waste of time, after all. But there are still a few “bad actors” out there who ignore the regulations.
According to The Associated Press, officials in 40 states are investigating the companies behind the car-warranty calls. And on Sunday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York pushed for a federal investigation.
Federal rules prohibit telemarketers from masking the numbers they’re calling from.
So if you have caller ID, you can report repeat robo sales callers to the Federal Trade Commission, which has the power to assess large fines against them.
If you’re a cheapskate like me and you don’t have caller ID you’re probably out of luck.
“I’d turn the ringer off,” Scism said.
Until Sept. 1, that is.