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‘Robocall’ complaints on the rise

Los Angeles resident Jeri Vargas lets her mother, Eleanor, 88, use the phone but has to check incoming robocalls that get past the “Do Not Call” regis-try, since the Alzheimer’s patient is vulnerable to pitches delivered by the automat-ed system.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Jeri Vargas put her elderly mother on the ‘‘Do Not Call’’ list years ago. So why is the 88-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease getting several recorded phone calls a day, pitching everything from vacation cruises to medical alert devices to fire extinguishers?

The Federal Communications Commission has been asked to consider whether phone companies could do more to stop the onslaught of ‘‘robocalls,’’ the automated calls favored by scammers. Since the convergence of Internet and phone lines, it’s become easy to blast out hundreds of thousands of calls in just minutes to see who takes the bait. The question of whether these calls can be blocked has never been more pressing than around tax season, when many pretend to come from the IRS.


Phone companies say they worry that automatic call-blocking might run afoul of laws requiring them to connect calls, and have asked the FCC for clarification. Many carriers offer call-blocking to consumers, sometimes for a fee. But they don’t want regulators to create hard-and-fast rules that could be difficult to implement.

Consumer groups counter that the phone companies are dragging their feet for no good reason and that, with the FCC’s clearance, they could block most robocalls if they wanted.

‘‘It is time for AT&T to provide free, effective solutions to this problem immediately, so that unwanted robocalls are stopped before they reach us,’’ Tim Marvin of Consumers Union wrote to AT&T. The organization, which has launched an online petition at EndRobocalls.com, sent similar letters to Verizon and Century Link.

AT&T says it’s not as easy as it sounds. Robocallers can easily ‘‘spoof’’ their identities and locations by pretending to be from a legitimate source or by altering the caller ID, so blocking robocalls is ‘‘a bit like a game of Whac-A-Mole: Just as numbers are identified for blocking, the robocaller spoofs another number,’’ the company said in an FCC filing.


Congress passed the widely popular ‘‘Do Not Call’’ legislation in 2003. Telemarketers are not allowed to call a registered number unless they have ‘‘an established business relationship’’ with the individual. But unsolicited calls remain a top consumer complaint. The Federal Trade Commission gets an average of 150,000 complaints a month on robocalls, and has filed more than 100 lawsuits against Do Not Call violators.

Still, regulators and providers say they remain stumped.

‘‘For every company we can shut down, there are probably 10 to 100 companies that can pop up in its place,’’ said Patty Hsue, an FTC staff attorney who leads the agency’s technical initiatives against robocalls.

A common example is ‘‘Rachel from Cardholder Services.’’ The recording encourages listeners to press a number that connects them with someone who promises to lower their interest rates in exchange for a fee. The FTC was able to trace the calls to multiple people and demand refund checks, but copycat scams continue.

For Vargas, it was aggressive telemarketing that tipped her off to her mother’s failing health. Yachting equipment arrived one day, followed by magazines, books, and light bulbs. Vargas hid her mom’s credit cards, only to find out later that one caller had her mother search through old statements to provide him with a card number. Vargas said she thinks robocalls were an easy way for con artists to identify her mother as a vulnerable target. ‘‘I don’t mind if someone calls me because I can say, ‘No thank you,’ ’’ Vargas said, ‘‘but it’s hard for someone like my mom.’’


The problem is so bad that the FTC in 2012 began offering cash prizes for technical solutions. Among the winners is Nomorobo, which hangs up on robocallers for you. But it works only on Voice-over-Internet Protocol, or VoIP, phone lines.

Consumer groups say the winning entries suggest the phone companies have the ability to spot fraudulent calls.

Last fall, the National Association of Attorneys General asked the FCC to clarify whether blocking robocalls violates any telecommunications statutes. The major carriers say they agree that some legal guidance would be useful, but an industry group, USTelecom, said that ‘‘complex technological and legal issues’’ remain.