How you can can texted spam
By Kevin DeMarrais
HACKENSACK, N.J. — Like most of the 148 million consumers who signed up for the Do Not Call list a few years back, I rarely get unsolicited calls to my home telephone.
But my wife has recently been receiving telemarketing calls as well as text messages on her cell phone, and several readers report having the same experience.
Unfortunately, regulators don’t make it easy to deal with this problem.
Under federal law, autodialed calls to cell phones are prohibited, even if the cell phone is not registered on the Do Not Call list.
That’s why a "Truth About Cell Phones" fact sheet issued two weeks ago by the Federal Trade Commission said, "It is not necessary to register cell phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry to be protected from most telemarketing calls."
But the unscrupulous telemarketers ignore the rules, leading to 10 "missed-call" notices and voicemail messages from New Hampshire, Nevada and several California numbers we’ve gotten in the past month.
Each says it is our last chance to extend an auto warranty.
When I called the numbers left on caller ID, a recorded message — the same one on each — told me how to get on this telemarketer’s do-not-call list. None gave any indication who was calling.
On several I left a call-back number, but I’m still waiting.
When calls are made to my home phone, they are merely annoying. But for people on a cell phone plan with limited monthly minutes, they can be costly.
Two of the calls came while we were vacationing in Australia last month, and each came with a $1.49 roaming charge. The cost would have been even higher except we ignored four other voicemail messages until we got home.
My experience seems to be increasingly common.
"Phishers are now sending unsolicited text messages to your cell phone which, as you know, goes toward your text message count unless you have unlimited service," Jim Viola of Bogota, N.J., wrote.
"Most people do not (and) will get charged for these," he said.
"Does the consumer have any recourse that you may be aware of to get these organizations blocked or shut down as is done for spam e-mails aside from just canceling their text capability?"
The short answer: Complain. But that is easier said than done.
I was able to get the charges quickly reversed by my cell phone carrier, but it took a long time to figure out how to file a complaint. The FTC, which runs the national Do Not Call program, doesn’t allow you to file a complaint online unless your number is registered on the national Do Not Call list.
Even worse, it doesn’t tell you where to go.
That’s because oversight of cell phones falls to the Federal Communications Commission, not the FTC, even on Do Not Call issues.
Once you know it’s the FCC’s domain, however, filing a complaint is easy. Go to fcc.gov/cgb/complaints.html and click on the fourth option, "telemarketing."
That will take you to FCC Form 1088. The rest of the process is easy, and the more information you have the better.
Neither the FCC nor the FTC is likely to act on a specific complaint. But enforcement bureaus at both agencies compile data from consumers and use that to go after the worst offenders.
The FTC’s most recent action was against Voicemail Broadcasting Corp., a California company that used automated dialers to illegally "blast" more than 46 million consumers with pre-recorded telemarketing pitches for products ranging from debt-consolidation services to mortgage brokerage services and other retail and financial services.
In February the company and its owner were ordered to pay $180,000 in civil penalties, which doesn’t seem like much of a deterrent.
The actual fine was $3 million, but, as FTC spokesman Frank Dorman said, while the FTC tries in all enforcement actions to get as much money as possible, the money is often gone.
"In every case when monetary judgments and/or civil penalties are suspended due to inability to pay, the full amount is imposed if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition," Dorman said.
Other cases among 30-plus filed by the FTC carried harsher penalties, including $4.4 million levied in November against adjustable bed seller Craftmatic Industries Inc., $2 million for alarm-monitoring provider ADT Security Services and $1 million for Ameriquest Mortgage Co., which has ceased operations.
Without consumers filing complaints, these companies would probably continue to ignore the Do Not Call rules.
And, despite what the FTC says, it wouldn’t hurt to put your cell phone on the Do Not Call Registry. Just call 1-800-382-1222 from the number you want registered or go online at FTC.gov/donotcall.