Robocalls on the rise, how to handle them

The Federal Trade Commission says it is cracking down on robocalls, stepping up efforts to halt illegal automated sales calls that are a growing annoyance for millions of households.

Since September 2009, the FTC has prohibited prerecorded telemarketing calls unless consumers give written permission to receive them. Marketers are not allowed to trick people into signing a robocall waiver by burying it in fine print.

"American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said when the law was enacted.

Despite the ban, the calls are on the rise, the agency said.

Complaints about robocalls have risen steadily from a monthly total of just over 65,000 in October 2010 to 140,500 in September 2011, according to the FTC's most recent figures. The agency received 250,000 complaints about unwanted sales calls in September last year, but many don't indicate whether the call was automated or live.

The FTC attributes the spike to technology. Making automated calls is easy and increasingly cheap. The calls also are becoming more difficult for law enforcement and regulators to trace because of new "spoofing" technology that allows the originator to transmit a fictitious caller ID.

"When a consumer sees caller ID information, that often is completely faked," said Kati Daffan, an attorney at the FTC's bureau of consumer protection.

The agency is planning an October summit in Washington, D.C., to explore new ways to track and halt illegal robocalls.

Although automated sales calls are prohibited, other prerecorded calls are not, including those from politicians, survey takers, debt collectors and most charities.

The ban also doesn't cover automated informational messages such as those that notify people about flight cancellations or school delays.

Live sales calls are not illegal. To block such calls, list your phone numbers on the federal Do Not Call registry (www.donotcall.gov or toll-free at 1-888-382-1222). Companies with an existing business relationship with a household, such as a bank, are exempt from honoring the registry unless a customer requests it.

If an illegal robocaller shows up for dinner, the FTC advises that you:

-- Don't press any number, even if you're told it will get you off the call list or connect you to a live operator. Responding to a prompt confirms the phone number works.

-- Report the call to the FTC at www.ftc.gov or by calling toll-free 1-877-382-4357. Include the nature of the call and the caller ID (even if it is fake).

-- Hang up. It's not worth paying attention to an illegal robocaller.

Scripps Howard News Service

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