The number of annoying robocalls ringing on your cellphone or landline could be reduced - at least temporarily - if a federal crackdown announced Tuesday is successful.
The Federal Trade Commission said it has teamed up with 25 law enforcement groups groups in Illinois and elsewhere on what it's calling "Operation Call it Quits," an effort targeting operators at every part of the robocall chain. That includes those who sell phone numbers, develop technology to generate the calls and those who make the calls seeking personal information and money for products and services they don't intend to deliver, according to Andrew Smith, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The FTC said its efforts so far have targeted operations around the country that are responsible for more than 1 billion calls.
The FTC said it filed lawsuits and/or settlements in federal courts in Illinois, Florida and California. The settlements included fines and a ban on making robocalls, telemarketing calls and other related activities.
In federal court in Chicago, the FTC settled a suit against New York-based Lifewatch, a seller of medical alert systems, and associated telemarketers, for more than $30 million.
Filed jointly in 2015 with the Florida Attorney General's office, the FTC said Lifewatch and its telemarketers "bombarded primarily elderly consumers with at least a billion" unsolicited robocalls pitching supposedly free medical alert systems. They made up numbers, frequently with a familiar prefix or area code, that appear on consumers' caller IDs to trick them into answering the phone, the FTC said.
Lifewatch and its associates used prerecorded messages that were meant to sound like a live person that told consumers a medical alert system had been purchased for them and they could receive it "at no cost whatsoever," the FTC said in a news release.
The lawsuit alleged that consumers who spoke with a live operator were told that while the system cost over $400, they would receive it for free but had to share their credit card information to "activate" the system. The FTC said the consumers were charged immediately and did not receive the systems.
Lifewatch and the telemarketers are now banned from robocalling and and must notify current customers about the false claims and illegal robocalls.
In many cases, robocall operators accessed phone numbers registered on the "Do Not Call" list and called them, the FTC said.
The FTC also filed lawsuits against businesses and individuals who sought out consumers with financial problems, offering to help them get out of debt. One company allegedly told consumers they could make $5,000 to $10,000 in 14 days if they paid between $2,395 and $22,495 for a fraudulent money-making program.
"The message they (the FTC) are sending is that they aren't going away," said Marc Rachman, an intellectual property expert and and partner at New York City-based law firm Davis & Gilbert. "Even if the scope of robocalling is so broad, they will still address it."
However, he noted, "It's like whack-a-mole."
Separately, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court against two West Chicago companies, Glamour Services and Awe Struck and their manager, Matthew Glamkowski, alleging they solicited home cleaning services by phoning people on the do not call list. The state said it has received more than 1,000 complaints since 2007 from consumers on the list. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.
On the federal level, there have been other recent moves to address robocalls.
Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to allow wireless carriers to block unwanted robocalls spam calls by default. The new regulation requires that carriers notify consumers and allow them to opt out of the service if they want.
FTC officials acknowledge they face an uphill battle. When agencies stop one company, the instances of consumers receiving robocalls temporarily dip and then rise again as newcomers get into the game. "We have to continue to fight robocalls with the tools we have at our disposal," Smith said. "The first is law enforcement, the second is technology and the third is what consumers can do to protect themselves. "
The FTC advised consumers to help themselves:
- Let unfamiliar phone numbers go directly to voicemail.
- If you answer a call with an automated recording, hang up immediately.
- Ask your carrier about call-blocking services.
- Report the calls to the Commission at ftc.gov/calls
On your mobile phone:
- Download a call-blocking app. Some are free, others charge a monthly fee.
- See what services your wireless carrier offers.
- See what built-in features your phone has to block calls.
On your landline:
- See what call-blocking services your carrier has.
- Install a call-blocking service that use blacklists to stop unwanted calls or divert them to voicemail.
- See what services your carrier has. Some offer a service that creates "Whitelists" of approved phone numbers.
On voice-over-Internet phones:
- Use a blocking service - some are free, some are not - that will stop calls, ring silently or go straight to voicemail.
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