The short answer: Robo-callers make so much money that they can afford to pay a fine to the FTC.
Washington Post uses the example of one telemarketer to explain why those robo-calls keep calling you.of the
Virtually all robo-calls, whatever they’re selling, are illegal. But that hasn’t stopped a middle-aged telemarketer named Aaron Michael (or Michael Aaron) Jones, who lives high by spamming people with robo-calls. He lives in a $25,000 a month Spanish Colonial Revival house in a gated community near Laguna Beach, Calif.; has a personal chef; drives a couple of Mercedes; and has a gambling account at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Jones had paid for exclusive access to a computer program capable of blasting out prerecorded phone messages to just about anyone in the country, peddling auto warranties, home security systems and search-engine optimization tools. He works with a revolving cast of co-workers under the auspices of about a dozen corporations, as well as rents the computer program out to other robo-callers.
According to the FTC’s investigation, Jones was “facilitating” roughly a billion robo-calls a year, more than any individual the FTC had ever identified. On Oct. 1, 2015, Jones was called to the Washington headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to testify under oath.
At 9:50 a.m., Jones and his attorney arrived at a fifth-floor FTC conference room, where two of the commission’s lawyers, James Evans and Ian Barlow, would confront him. But a curious thing happened as they began asking questions: Jones didn’t deny much of anything. When Evans tried to pin down the volume of calls he was capable of placing, he answered, “I did a lot,” then punched out an estimate on his phone’s calculator. Jones eventually grew restless and tried to move the interview along: “Obviously, the underlying issue is the calls are illegal. We know that already.” Afterward, he returned to California and resumed robo-calling. In January 2017, the FTC sued him. Five months later, a federal judge banned him from telemarketing and hit him with a $2.7 million penalty. He didn’t bother contesting the judgment. […]
Jones, it appears, didn’t really care about getting caught. The same goes for the rest of the robo-calling industry. The financial rewards of bothering people on the telephone are clearly greater than the risks. “We continue to bring cases and shut down as many folks as we can,” says Janice Kopec, the FTC’s point person on robo-calls. “What we recognized, though, was we shut down an operation and another one springs up behind it almost instantaneously.” Hence our modern scourge. In 2015, the call-blocking app YouMail estimated that close to a billion robo-calls were being placed every month. Two years later, that number has leapt to 2.5 billion. At best, these calls annoy. At worst, they defraud. By far, they constitute the top consumer complaint received by the FTC.
In theory, there is a fix: the National Do Not Call Registry, created in 2003. Today, 230 million numbers are on it. The point, obviously, is to not be called. And yet the FTC receives 19,000 complaints every day from list members who have, in fact, been called. There is a battle being waged over the inviolability of our telephone numbers — over the right to not be bothered. On one side there is Mike Jones and his robot army. On the other side, there is the federal government and its list. It is clear who’s winning. But why?
identifies some key players and moments in the history of telemarketing:
- In 1967, Murray Roman, a public-relations consultant, first invented telemarketing.
- In 1969, Douglas Samuelson, a Virginia telecom analyst, invented predictive dialing — a technology that allowed department stores, politicians and scammers to dial widely and quickly, while weeding out phone lines that were busy or unresponsive — which exponentially increased telemarketing.
Note: Hmm, Aaron Michael Jones, Murray Roman, Douglas Samuelson. Does anyone see a pattern here?
- In 1991, Congress created the first Do Not Call registries, which were ineffective because the registries were maintained by telemarketers so that the only way to get on them was to call the companies themselves.
- In 2003, Congress passed a bill to create a nationwide Do Not Call Registry, administered by the FTC. (The House bill passed 412 to 8, opposed by Ron Paul, Jeff Flake and a handful of other shrink-the-state types.) In three months, 50 million people signed up. Telemarketing groups found to have called any of the registered numbers could be fined up to $11,000 per call. By downloading the list of numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, and then declining to call them, telemarketers largely policed themselves out of existence.
- By the late 2000s, though, a new threat had emerged: robo-calls, prerecorded phone messages instead of live telemarketers. Legitimate companies began outsourcing illegal robo-calls to third parties. Will Maxson, an assistant director in the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, explains that voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) dialing “allows telemarketers to make lots and lots of calls for less money, from anywhere in the world. It also allows you to set up shop, tear down, move. All you really need to make a lot of calls is a computer and an Internet connection.” Combine that with an automated dialing platform, plus some co-workers, and you’re Aaron Michael Jones.
- Robo-calls also employ another technology — “spoofing” or faking a telephone number enables robo-callers to call targets from numbers that bore their own area codes, and, simultaneously, throw law enforcement off their scent. (Now you know why so many robo-calls come from phone numbers with your area code!)
- In 2009, the FTC outlawed almost all robo-calls, exempting those from political organizations, schools and other entities not trying to sell you things. Alas, the ban had no perceptible effect. From 2010 to 2011, the number of annual Do Not Call complaints jumped from 1.6 million to 2.3 million; in 2012, the number rose again by nearly 70%. In 2017, the FTC received a record 7.2 million complaints. The top violations reported were debt-reduction schemes, vacation and timeshare offers, warranties and protection plans, and impostors.
At the root of the FTC’s public relations problem is a misapprehension about how the Do Not Call Registry works:
- When you add your number to the list, nothing actually happens. No legal muscle or technological wizardry prevents a solicitor from calling you.
- All the list does is provide you with vague recourse in the event you are called, by allowing you to complain that someone has called you, by calling a toll-free number or filling out a form on the Do Not Call website.
- If the number you were called from shows up in enough complaints, the FTC will leap into action and prosecute the offending dialer. Except, it almost certainly won’t.
The main reasons why the FTC’s Do Not Call registry doesn’t and can’t stop robo-calls are:
- Robo-callers couldn’t care less because nobody knows who they are or where they’re calling from since they all spoof (fake) their numbers.
- More robo-calls are done every year because it’s cheap and easy to blast out automated calls from anywhere in the world.
- 1 and 2 make it nearly impossible for the FTC to identify robo-callers, let alone penalize them. At a hearing on robo-calls in October, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was getting so many of them, she’d disconnected her home phone. “The list,” she said, “doesn’t work.”
- The FTC doesn’t have the resources to go after robo-callers, with an annual budget of $300 million (the FBI’s is $9 billion) and only 43 employees in the Division of Marketing Practices, which oversees unwanted calls, none of whom work full time on the issue. Ami Dziekan, who works in a different department, is the lone steward of the Do Not Call Registry.
- Since the robo-call ban went into effect in 2009, the FTC has brought just 33 cases against robo-callers. In those cases, defendants have been ordered to pay nearly $300 million in relief to victims, and nearly $30 million in civil penalties to the government. But even then, the FTC can’t force perpetrators to pay the fine if they argue they’re broke, which robo-callers often seem to be. So the FTC has only collected on a fraction of those sums: $18 million in relief and less than $1 million in penalties.
This is how I deal with robo-calls:
When a call rings and I don’t recognize the caller ID number, I answer the call but stay silent. If it’s a human calling, the person eventually will say: “Hello? Hello?”. If it’s a robo-call, after a few seconds of my silence, the robo-call simply hangs up.
After weeks of employing the silent method, I’ve noticed that the number of robo-calls has greatly decreased.
Let’s hear from our readers of your methods of dealing with these irritating robo-calls!
Thanks to reader Roy’s advice, I just signed on to a service called Nomorobo, which blocks robo-calls. The service is free for landline phones, but costs $1.99 a month for mobile phones. I followed the instructions, and successfully enabled robo-calls to be blocked from my landline phone. Click here or go to: https://nomorobo.com/.
Update (July 25, 2019):
The House passed a bill to crack down on spam robocalls in a 429-3 vote. The bill would strengthen the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to take action against illegal robocalling operations and would require all carriers to implement technology to make sure all calls are authentic (instead of using fake phone numbers). READ
On Dec. 30, 2019, President Trump the bill into law.