The tone of the email was exasperation. A reader wrote to say she's been getting as many as 20 unsolicited phone calls per day from telemarketers, despite having listed her number with the National Do Not Call Registry.

Why bother registering? Does the system even work? Is this happening only to her?

Let's begin with the last question first: No, she's not alone. I'm still hearing from Ray's Carpet Cleaning, offering to do my hallways for free, even after reporting him to the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Irritating Sales Pitches.

I get calls from people who want to save me money by remodeling my house, refinancing my mortgage and lowering my credit-card interest rate. It's amazing how many strangers call around dinnertime trying to help me out.

According to the FTC, which manages no-call enforcement, annual nationwide complaints have ballooned from 579,000 in 2004 to 3.8 million in 2012. But officials also point out that registered phone numbers have grown from 51.9 million to 217.6 million, so there are more victims to annoy.

From a glass-half-full perspective, only 1.7 percent of those were angry enough in 2012 to fill out the online complaint form. (Nobody knows how many were peeved but didn't complain.) Still, 3.8 million is a lot of complaints. Which ones get investigated?


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Program coordinator Bikram Bandy said companies that get reported most often are most apt to have the FTC knocking on their doors. Calls that involve scams -- too-good-to-be true debt consolidation offers top the list -- also attract scrutiny. The FTC has prosecuted 105 cases in its 10-year history, including a record-setting $7.5 million fine levied against Mortgage Investors Corp. five months ago, after it was found to have dialed 5.4 million no-call numbers while peddling refinancing services to current and former military members.

"The maximum civil penalty that can be imposed is $16,000 per violation," Bandy said, "but when a company has violations, it usually has a lot. One of the factors we consider is ability to pay. The fine can't be so great that companies go out of business and people lose jobs."

Enforcement has been made more complicated in recent years with advances in technology that hide callers' identities. Using a technique that is known as "spoofing," a telemarketer can manipulate the information that appears on a consumer's caller ID. Both the company name and its phone number often are fake.

"Telemarketers know that if caller ID says 'private' or 'unknown,' consumers are less likely to engage in those calls," Bandy said. "A lot of times the fake number will show a local exchange because consumers are more apt to answer."

The FTC is tackling this issue, working with phone companies to implement caller ID "authentication," but because major changes in current technology are required, the remedy is likely years, not months, away. In the meantime, the FTC does what it can.

"A lot of people say, 'I'm on the DNC registry and I get calls, so it's not working," Bandy said. "That's not really accurate. In the 10 years we've had this list, callers have had far fewer calls because legitimate telemarketers don't call people who are registered."

Someone should explain that to Ray the carpet cleaner. Maybe I will when he calls during dinner.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.