“Hello! We’ve been trying to reach you!” gushed the the canned voice of Elizabeth, blowing up my phone about the resort stay I had won. It was 2:49 p.m.
Just 43 minutes later, another robot named Jessica with Home Security Systems called to tell me about an exciting giveaway.
Then at 5:16 p.m., it was time for Rachel from Cardholder Services to tell me that there isn’t a problem with my card, but this is my final notice and I really need to talk with her.
Like many of our readers, I’m fed up with the robocalls, which seem to have exploded in the last few months.
“In some ways I feel like I’m being harassed daily, literally daily by telemarketers. It is nonstop,” said reader Coleen Sauvey in response to our July 27 Facebook post asking how many calls folks field.
“Our eight-year-old has a phone that we use to monitor his blood sugar,” wrote Jen Wolf. “He was getting 15 to 20 (robocalls) per day until we finally changed his phone number. He doesn’t need to consolidate his student loans.”
It feels like there’s no winning the battle against automated marketing calls.
My number has been on the National Do Not Call Registry since Aug. 9, 2006 — almost exactly 11 years as I type this. For this story, I logged the number of robocalls I got over a 48-hour period.
There were 14.
Frustrated, I reached out to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office to ask how you and I can stop the plague of often-fraudulent sales pitches.
DeWine himself called back: “I have yet to find anybody who likes a robocall. Nobody’s happy about it,” he said.
Some calls are simply a nuisance and others are seeking to trick you into giving up credit card numbers and sensitive personal information, he said. The Do Not Call Registry is a good first step, but scam artists aren’t going to heed it.
Since 2009, the Federal Trade Commission, which runs the registry, has logged a huge spike in illegal sales calls.
A prime reason is technology. Internet-based phones “make it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world, and to display fake caller ID information, which helps them hide from law enforcement,” the FTC says.
In June, DeWine’s office wrote that the Internet’s made it possible for telemarketers to send hundreds of thousands of robocalls per day.
They can also choose what number your caller ID will display, a practice called “spoofing.”
“It used to be that you’d look down you saw 419 and you’d think, well that’s Toledo, and you saw 513, well that’s Cincinnati, 614 that’s Central Ohio,” DeWine told me. “Now when you look down, you don’t know if that’s the real number or not. They will spoof a number that’s usually your own area code, so you’re more likely to think, OK that’s a local call.”
So what can you do about it?
First, make sure you’re signed up at www.donotcall.gov. Second, when Elizabeth, Jessica, Heather, and the rest of their robo-pals call, report them.
You can file a complaint with the FTC by calling 877-382-4357 or visiting www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. Or you can reach out to DeWine’s office at 800-282-0515 or www.ohioprotects.org.
Jonathan Blanton, chief of the state’s consumer protections section, said reporting scam calls really does help.
His team uses the information to compile a database tracking problem phone numbers. When the analysts see trends involving a specific number, they have the authority to track it down.
Internet-based phone services have made that process much more complicated than in the days when just a few major carriers ruled the lines, Blanton said.
“One of the big challenges is that the robocallers rotate through these numbers so quickly,” he said. “We don’t see a huge number of calls associated with one particular number very often anymore. We see them spread out across multiple numbers.”
“We do our best to chase them, but it’s more and more challenging with each passing day due to technology and globalization.”
It’s a whack-a-mole game. For scammers, being a moving target is part of the game plan.
But it’s not futile. The Ohio attorney general’s office shares complaints with federal agencies to put together a meaningful list of problem numbers.
“Maybe we’re seeing a number here in Ohio that they’re seeing in Tennessee or Texas or California that we put together a pattern or are able to make a case out of,” Blanton said.
The FTC has sued hundreds of companies and people responsible for automated calls, winning more than $1 billion in judgements. Violators can be fined up to $40,654 per call.
In June, the FTC asked for a $120 million fine against Adrian Abramovich of Miami, who they say is responsible for nearly 97 million robocalls made in late 2016. The Federal Communications Commission said he used spoofed numbers to offer vacation deals.
As for the infamous Rachel from Card (or Card Holder) Services, the FTC says it’s shut down more than a dozen of her companies.
“Lots of boiler rooms in the U.S. and overseas use the exact same recorded message by Rachel and friends, running a scam to — supposedly — reduce your credit card interest rate,” the agency said in 2015.
Card Services is a scam that charges fees up to $5,000, the federal agency said. It’s against the law to charge up-front fees for services that lower interest rates.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.