by Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog
March 4, 2021
It used to be that we were plagued by Rachel, the friendly woman calling from “Cardholder Services,” who said she wanted to help us reduce the interest rate on our credit card. If you took the bait, you’d be charged a fee for Rachel’s efforts to reduce your interest rate. Or she might just steal your card number It’s illegal for companies doing business by phone to guarantee loan approval or a certain interest rate in exchange for an upfront fee. There are no indications that Rachel ever helped anyone get a lower interest rate. It was a massive, infamous robocall scam. And annoying.
Robocalls are defined as calls made by an automated system, with a recorded message, not a live person. Most robocalls are illegal unless you’ve opted in to receive them from a particular entity.
1 in 3 calls is a robocall
Robocalls are the No. 1 consumer problem in the United States and have been for years. About 5 billion robocalls are placed every month nationwide. More than one-third of all calls are robocalls, according to Nomorobo.
Fraud from unwanted calls totals about $10 billion a year, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In addition, illegal robocalls cost $3 billion a year in wasted time, the Federal Communications Commission says.
Most illegal robocalls want to get your money or get your information, which they can turn into money.
They may be trying to sell a real product; they may be trying to rip you off. In either case, a robocall aimed at selling you something is illegal unless a company has your upfront, written permission, the FTC says. A few types of robocalls are allowed without your permission, the FTC says, such as charities asking for donations or political calls on behalf of candidates running for elected office. Others that are allowed without upfront permission include messages that are strictly informational: from your pharmacy telling you your prescription is in, from your airline informing you your flight will be delayed or a delivery company telling you your shipment has arrived.
Everyone is peddling a car warranty
These days, calls about supposed car warranties seem to have replaced Rachel. Just about everyone is getting robocalls about car warranties that are expiring, or some such nonsense. (I get calls all of the time that my warranty is about to expire on my car. They don't know I have a 2005 Chevy, which I bought two years ago from a private seller, and I never had a warranty on it.) In other cases, the nice warranty callers say you can buy a warranty, even if you never had one, for a fee. According to complaints, the service contracts some consumers buy are virtually useless. Even if you figure that out, you have almost no chance of getting your money back.
The goal of illegal robocallers is to get you to pick up or return the call. The scammer can't scam if they don't talk to you.
They may impersonate -- spoof -- a number to make it look like it’s a local call or coming from a business you know. They may leave a message so enticing or alarming that you’re lulled into calling back. With many of the scam calls, they almost always require immediate action or else the offer is going to expire.
The scammers want you to act quickly, before you have a chance to think about it or bounce it off of a family member. In some cases, the caller may be trying to extract personal information. In the case of the car warranty calls, if you say you don't have a warranty on your car, the caller may ask what kind of car you have so they can check their records, or they may ask for your VIN, or your mailing address, or your date of birth so they can cross-check their records.
Here are tips for handling robocalls:
- Register all of your phone numbers with the federal Do Not Call List by calling 1-888-382-1222. It won't stop most of the calls. Most con-artists don't care whether they break the rules, but your ability to lodge a complaint about the call with the state AG or feds can start with showing the caller violated the DNC List.
- Never, ever confirm or provide personal information to any caller you weren't expecting. Not even your name. Nothing. If you think the call could be legitimate, call the company back at a number you look up independently.
- Don't be fooled by what the Caller ID says. Bad guys can spoof their numbers to look like it's a local call or coming from a known business.
- If you do pick up the phone and realize it's an illegal robocall, just hang up. Don't push any buttons to be taken off their call list. Pressing buttons just confirms they've reached a live person.
- Don't be tricked if a caller/ robocaller knows your name, address, family members' names or even your Social Security number. All of this and more was exposed for half of the adult population in the Equifax data breach of 2017.
- On your outbound voicemail message, don't provide your full name. No sense in giving a scammer more information than they may have had.
- Report illegal robocalls or DNC List violations: Call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP or file a complaint online at ftc.gov/complaint. Violations of the DNC List can be made to https://www.donotcall.gov/ You should note the number on your Caller ID and any number left on the message that you’re supposed to call back. You should also report illegal calls to your state attorney general. See the contact information for the attorneys general in every state here.