woman on phone at computer

You know the drill – you’re relaxing on the couch, or eating dinner with your family, when the phone rings. “Hello?” you answer. But instead of the start of a conversation, you just hear another annoying pre-recorded sales pitch. You’re not alone. Robocalls continue to be one of the top complaints for consumers at both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Every year, these agencies receive thousands of complaints from consumers about incessant robocalls that attempt to sell them something or violate the National Do Not Call Registry. At Consumers Union, when we asked the public for their robocall stories and complaints, we collected more than 6,000 stories, 4,700 letters, and 107,321 petition signatures urging regulators to do more to prevent these calls.

Aren’t robocalls illegal?

You are right – they are illegal without the recipient’s prior, express consent.  But there’s a lot of question as to what counts as consent.  If you provide a phone number to a business or organization, does it count as consent to receive calls? If you provide an organization with your phone number can that count as permission for a third party to call you on their behalf? Courts around the country are still grappling with these and other questions. The important thing to know is that if you have never had any interaction or business relationship with an organization — or if you have placed your name on the National Do Not Call registry or a company-specific Do Not Call list, then they should not be calling you. Businesses must get prior consent, and they must honor consumers’ requests not to be called. For the most part, legitimate companies are doing a good job of following these rules.

Keep in mind that although telemarketing robocalls are illegal without prior, express written consent from the call recipient, some types of calls are exempt from the rules. Non-profit tax-exempt organizations, political calls, and emergency robocalls are legal for land line phone numbers even without written consent. Non-profits still need consent to call mobile phone numbers, and political calls are typically not allowed to call mobile phone numbers without consent. Emergency or health-related robocalls are exempt for both land lines and mobile phones.

What exactly is the Do Not Call Registry?

The Do Not Call Registry is a national list of phone numbers that telemarketers are not supposed to call.  Since its creation, it has successfully decreased legitimate in-person telemarketing calls, and has helped guard consumers against legitimate robocalls. If your phone number is not registered, you can add it at www.donotcall.gov for free. Telemarketers must compare the phone numbers they have to the ones on the list every thirty days. If they have a match, they cannot dial that number.

Note that since they must only check the list every thirty days, you may still get a call within thirty days of registering your number, but after that time period you number should be removed from their list. Telemarketers must also do this comparison when sending pre-recorded messages or calling numbers using an auto-dialer, collectively known as robocalling.

I’m on the Do Not Call Registry – why am I still getting robocalls?

Despite the existence of the Registry, consumers still receive many robocalls. The Registry does a good job of curbing the amount of legitimate telemarketing robocalls received by consumers. However, changes in technology are making it easier for scammers to send out messages and calls to many people at once — sometimes in an effort to steal your personal information. These scammers have little incentive to follow the law because they are trying to commit fraud in the first place.

Why is it getting worse?

Auto-dialers, devices that can dial thousands of phone numbers per minute, are easier to use than ever and making it easy for bad actors to cover their tracks. Scammers can use what’s called “spoofing technology” to make a phone number appear differently on a caller ID. As one can imagine, it can be especially problematic when a scammer “spoofs” a number to impersonate the IRS, the recipient’s local police department, or the recipient’s bank. It’s important to remember that none of these organizations would ask for your private information like account numbers, credit card numbers, usernames, and password over the phone.

Who’s in charge?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) both share jurisdiction over the issue of unwanted robocalls. The FCC has jurisdiction over the telephone service providers, and the authority to regulate communications by radio, wire, and satellite, while the FTC enforces federal consumer protection laws that protect against fraud and deception found in most illegal robocalls. These agencies can can bring enforcement actions and issue monetary penalties which can end up costing companies or individuals millions of dollars. Unfortunately, these processes can take months — and technology is making it harder for some of these bad actors to be tracked down. At Consumers Union, we are urging regulators and industry participants to do more  and to work together to put an end to these unwanted robocalls.

What can I do?