Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Blow whistle on illicit callers

Mention scam, as I did in Tuesday’s column when I wrote about getting fraudulent calls, and I’m guaranteed to field call after call from people who experienced the same.

Calls from overseas, directed through U.S. area codes, threatening to put you in jail over a tax issue that doesn’t exist.

Calls such as the ones I got Saturday, from perhaps the same guy who called me on the Treasury scam attempt but this time claiming to be from Microsoft and wanting access to my home computer. He wanted to fix the problem. Problem? He wanted to con me into giving him access to all passwords, bank accounts and any other business that might be conducted electronically. When I hung up on him, he called back, giving me the chance to hang up on him twice within a minute.

So for the past couple of days, the calls rolled in. Callers described a variety of scams, from being told that they have won $1 million but need to send $300 or so to get their money, to the Treasury and Microsoft scams, to illegal sales calls.

Mostly, they wonder what they can do to stop the constant barrage of calls and intrusions.

“I’m going to get a whistle,” a caller named Gary told me. “And when they call, I’m going to blow it as hard as I can.”

All said they are on the Do Not Call Registry overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, which forbids telemarketers from annoying people who do not want to be annoyed. The FTC requires telemarketers to purchase the registry and expects them to abide by it, FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz said.

The calling restriction applies to anyone who has been on the registry for at least a month. But it doesn’t prohibit calls from businesses with which you have regular dealings or those that have your written permission to contact you, from politicians or pollsters, or calls made on behalf of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations.

It is aimed at unsolicited telemarketers. And even if you aren’t registered, you can demand a caller cease calling you and add your name to their directory. That includes organizations with which you do business.

When bothered, you can file a complaint online with the FTC, and contrary to popular belief it does try to enforce the rules. Last month, the agency mailed out checks totaling more than $16 million to people contacted by a company called American Tax Relief. It preyed upon people with financial problems, claiming it could lower their tax debts.

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The FTC moved in on the crooks, seizing their assets and confiscating the assets of the crooks’ parents as well. Even so, the refunds amounted to only about 16 percent of the actual take.

In 2005, the FTC fined DirecTV $5.3 million for illegal telemarketing, with additional fines because the satellite TV provider didn’t stop. In 2009, two-time offender DirecTV and rival Comcast combined to pay $3.2 million in fines for violating Do Not Call rules. Also in 2009, all robocalls other than during political campaigns were outlawed, with fines up to $16,000 a day.

Yet, many of the people who called me are sick and tired of robocalls asking them to punch a button to be taken off the list or for other options. Often, when you press a button, a rep answers and now has the chance to make a sales pitch.

“Don’t do it,” Katz said. “Just hang up.”

The FTC has collected nearly $49 million in fines since April 2004. But there’s a caveat: The federal agency can go after only companies whose calls cross state lines. If the calls are within the state, it’s up to that state’s attorney general to prosecute. California became one of the first states to actively go after violators, fining a Hayward company $45,000 in 2003. It also joined Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio in going after Dish Network LLC, a rival to DirectTV, for its telemarketing violations earlier this year.

But while California imposed restrictions on unsolicited text messages, it basically relies on the FTC to prosecute the illegal or unethical in-state telemarketers and robocallers when, in fact, the FTC won’t do that. It will pursue only California businesses that contract with out-of-state or out-of-country telemarketing firms.

That explains why Larry Farren of Atwater keeps receiving calls from California solar companies soliciting new business. The businesses might be legitimate, but their calling practices are not. Because the calls are within California, the companies know they probably won’t be disciplined.

I continue to receive similar calls even though we installed solar over a year ago. Each time, I chastise the callers for calling when we are on the Do Not Call list and for not doing their homework. They work off the Do Not Care list. They don’t even apologize for their intrusion. They simply hang up and go on to the next solicitation.

Con artists, however, don’t abide by the registry because they intend to scam you anyway. When they call, ask for their calling location.

“They hang up right away,” Katz said.

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Gary’s method of getting the message across: Blowing a whistle, loud and long.

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