For months now, I've been harassed by the most obnoxious robocalls from Ray's carpet cleaning outfit. "Ray,'' who may or may not actually exist, leaves me the same semi-hysterical sales pitch each time:
"HELLO!'' he screams from my voice-message machine. "ARE YOUR CARPETS DIRTY?''
Again and again it comes. My home number's been registered and re-registered for years on the National Do Not Call Registry managed by the Federal Trade Commission, yet Ray keeps calling. I reached someone a few times on his alleged business phone and told them to stop calling and they said they would. But Ray keeps calling.
So I decided to dig into it, find out how other victims were fighting back, and then see what the good guys in Washington are doing to catch up with the bad guys who, technologically speaking, seem to always be one or two steps ahead.
First, I put my home number again on the registry. I filed a complaint about Ray's with the FTC. I tried, unsuccessfully, to track down the elusive Ray from whatever cave he's calling me from. And I spoke with an FTC rep.
Yes, said spokesman Mitch Katz, robocalls are the scourge of America right now and getting worse by the day. No, the Do Not Call list is not the waste of time that many frustrated citizens think it is. And yes, federal authorities are going after these illegal fraudsters with everything they've got.
"The registry does work,'' Katz told me. "We know it's working because the civil cases we've brought after people complained have stopped over 1 billion robocalls since 2009. Still, these computer-generated calls are so easy and cheap to make, and the criminals behind the operations are like cockroaches. You stomp on some here, then another bunch of them pop up over there.''
Katz hadn't heard about Ray's carpet cleaning. But he's quite familiar with "Rachel,'' the computerized voice behind a sprawling credit-protection scam that has traumatized millions of American homeowners.
—'Rachel from Card Services,' as she's known, is our Public Enemy No. 1,' '' Katz said.
Eugene Wong, a retired Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) manager from Cupertino, is all too familiar with Rachel. When I asked readers for their own robocalling nightmares, along with any tech tips they had on fighting back, Wong called me right up.
"I keep getting calls on my cellphone from Rachel with Card Holder Services, whatever that is,'' said Wong. "It's really annoying. The calls come at random times of the day from random area codes that I don't recognize. The recording says 'If you don't want to get future calls, press this number.' And I've done that many times and they still keep calling. It's been going on for six months and I'm getting calls twice a week.''
But back to my own headache -- Ray. After I told a woman who answered Ray's robocall number that I was a reporter, she hung up on me. I called from another number and left a message saying I was interested in hearing more about their service, which I was. Haven't heard back from anyone.
A lot of the victims I talked to have given up on the Do Not Call Registry.
"I've been on the Do Not Call List since day one,'' said Debra Bethard-Caplick, who teaches public-relations at Chicago's DePaul University. "I kept getting robocalls and I kept filing complaints, but I just kept getting calls from the same credit card company. Nothing works.''
Bethard-Caplick thinks some of these robocalling companies aren't really selling anything at all. "It's like the computers are doing it and the computer dialers have gotten ahead of the humans. I think the robots have taken over.''
Frustrated by being outwitted again and again by computers and the hackers controlling them, the federal government has turned to "crowdsourcing," asking the American public to help out. After seeking tech solutions in return for a cash prize of $50,000, the FTC's Robocall Challenge has received 1,000 entrants, Katz said. The winner will be announced April 15, and he says many of the ideas submitted could "provide a mechanism that could be used to stop these robocalls.
"Until then, we'll keep filing cases,'' Katz said. "We're not going anywhere, and if people keep filing complaints with our registry, we'll do everything we can do make sure you stop getting these unwanted calls.''
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc
Uncle Sam vs. Robo-
Since 2009, when all telemarketing robocalls were made illegal (with a few exceptions, such as political fundraisers and charities), the Federal Trade Commission says it has stopped 1 billion robocalls by aggressively going after scofflaws. Here are some stats on these efforts and FTC's National Do Not Call Registry:
Number of landline and cellphones registered last year
Number of complaints received by FTC in latest fiscal year
Number of legal cases brought against companies and individuals for violating the National Do Not Call Registry
Total amount of civil penalties imposed on violators
Total amount recovered for consumers who were defrauded by robocallers
Source: Federal Trade Commission
READER TIPS on fighting
Ron Fuentes, Danville: "With the U-Verse service from AT&T, you can list the numbers you want blocked, assuming you know what they are. It doesn't always work, because the robocallers keep changing their numbers, but for me it blocks calls 95 percent of the time.''
Charley Stephanski, San Jose: "I use my cellphone exclusively, and only answer my landline when caller ID shows it's someone I know. And if it's a robocaller, I just let it ring.''
Debra Bethard-Caplick, Chicago: "Buy a phone that lets you block certain numbers. I bought a Panasonic house phone for $60 and so far it's working. I still get robocalls, but after one ring the phone cuts it off.''
And this from the FTC website: "If you get a robocall: Hang up the phone. Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator and don't press any other number to get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it will probably just lead to more robocalls.'