Annoying robocalls: What you need to know to 'NoMoRobo'
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCIV) —
You’ve probably been there. Your phone rings, you rush to pick it up, only to get a recorded message from an unknown number trying to sell you something. They tell you about a credit card you never opened or that you won a free cruise you never signed up for.
"Phony" tricksters are everywhere these days, trying to reach out and touch your hard earned cash.
So how do you silence those swindlers and keep that phone from ringing?
We went to find out...
Fifteen years ago, Congress passed a law creating the National Do Not Call Registry. Since, 226 million people have signed up , and more than a million of those on the registry live in the Lowcountry. (See state-by-state comparisons here on page 6.)
2016 brought a record number of signups for the Do Not Call Registry. It also brought with it a record number of complaints from people who say despite the registry, the calls keep coming.
According to the 2016 Federal Trade Commission’s Federal Do Not Call Registry Report, over 31 million complaints have been filed within the past year. About 22,000 of those came from people in the 843 area code. (See complaints by area code here on page 21.)
Our investigation found there's a difference between sales calls, regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (your everyday telemarketers) and robocalls (the ones you are getting on your cell phone from unknown numbers or numbers you think look familiar).
Most of those originate in other countries or are from companies simply breaking the law.
Our investigation uncovered a new technology promising to help you hang up for good. For one Lowcountry woman all it took was a few clicks.
WE WERE BEING HARASSED
As a lead architect of Charleston’s Illumination Project, Margaret Seidler is used to fielding a lot of calls. But a year or so ago, the phone started ringing off the hook.
"Some days we would have gotten up to eight or nine calls.” Seidler said.
They were anything but business as usual.
Seidler considers herself of a generation that found it rude to just hang up on someone or not pick up the phone.
That means every ring, every call, was answered. Often times she would even sit through the typical sales spiel before her frustrations reached a boiling point.
But it wasn’t just telemarketers. In the past year and half, Seidler noticed an increase in Robocalls -- recorded messages trying to bait her into giving personal information.
“They were trying to sell things, constantly trying to sell things, trying to scam something about something was wrong with my computer -- trying to get credit card information," she said.
Seidler says she was desperate to dial back the number of calls, even equating the daily onslaught of calls be harassment.
“It’s your time throughout the day, people calling you, interrupting you and then they have this speech and deal that they are giving you and making it very difficult to say no and hand up. For me, it was a form of harassment”, she said.
Salvation came in the form of a chance encounter with Charleston Police Department Sgt. Trevor Shelor.
The two met a community gathering that was part of the Illumination Project. Seidler asked if anything could be done about the number of robocalls she was getting.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Sgt. Shelor told her she wasn’t alone and the complaints about the phone calls and potential scams were a daily occurrence.
Phone scammers target the elderly in hopes they can pose as someone else -- a relative, friend, grandson, even the IRS.
“The victims tend to be seniors," Shelor said. “...Or at least 50-years-old and above.”
As a historic community, Shelor says Charleston and the surrounding areas are prime targets for unwanted calls and potential scammers. The Charleston region's older homes, neighborhoods and communities feature an above average amount of landlines phones, some connected to numbers that have been around for decades.
“If you have a really old phone number, you’ve got old West Ashley numbers of 556 or 557 or James Island numbers or downtown numbers that are old landline prefixes. That is a category that these folks with these robotic calling machines -- they know that.” Shelor said.
Charleston police say there are numerous scams out there, but three in particular keep coming up year after year.
The first involves a caller claiming to be a member of a law enforcement organization, such as the police or sheriff’s office. The caller will claim the person who answers the phone missed jury duty or a court date. The caller will threaten the recipient with arrest if they do not pay a certain fine, usually in pre-paid gift cards.
The second popular scam floating around the phone: The Grandparent Scam. In this rouse, a caller will dial a random person, discover they are elderly and pretend to be a family member in order to extort money. The caller will pretend to be a son/daughter or grandson/granddaughter.
“They don’t always have the name up front," Shelor said. "They trick you into saying it. They will say, ‘hey granddad, you know who this is? Or, granddad, this is your grandson or your granddaughter,' and then you volunteer the name. Then, they are pretending to be that grandson that’s pretending to be on vacation in Panama or Myrtle Beach who have gotten in jail or in an accident and request money.”
Another popular scam Shelor says always comes up in April around tax time. A caller will claim they are from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and say that you owe back taxes. Shelor says the scammers prey on fear that you owe money or a penalty, however there is a common ingredient in these plots that can help you identify if its phoney.
“They will tell you the instructions to go to a Walmart, a CVS, a Walgreen’s or some place that you can buy gift cards, and buy a prepaid gift card. And then, call them back to give them the numbers.”
Shelor says that is your red flag.
“There is no government entity. There is no reason in the world the anyone would operate that way that they need gift cards," he said. “If they really had your relative in jail, they would want you to play with a real credit card.”
HANGING UP ON UNWANTED CALLS
The Federal Trade Commission instituted the Federal Do Not Call Registry in 2003. Millions of Americans have signed up but have grown frustrated that robocalls keep coming.
According to the FTC’s website, The Do Not Call Registry prohibits sales calls. They recommend you hang up on illegal sales calls. If your number is on the registry and you get a sales call, or you get an illegal robocall, don’t interact in any way. Don’t press buttons to be taken off the call list or to talk to a live person. Doing so will probably lead to more unwanted calls. Instead, they suggest you hang up and file a complaint. (See Number of Complaints here on page 4.)
On a recent day at his home, Sgt. Shelor himself said he received 15 unwanted and unsolicited robocalls. He decided to do a little research and came across a new service promising to block the bots.
“When the phone rings at your house. It simultaneously rings at NoMoRobo. Their computer simultaneously checks it with other known calls and other calls coming in from other NoMoRobo people at the same time. It shuts it down on the very first ring," Shelor said.
NoMoRobo.com is a free service for landline phones. It is available for iPhone right now for $1.99 per month. The company’s website says they are rolling out an Android version soon.
Margaret Seidler signed up and noticed a difference right away.
“It only took about five minutes to set up," she said. "The phone will ring once, and it will say incoming call on the caller ID and then it just goes away. We've gone from three to six a day to one or two a week. Where we hear that first ring, but we are just not getting them anymore."
The Federal Trade Commission to date says they’ve gone after over 131 companies for illegal robot and sales calls, amounting in over $7 million in fines.