Joe Bertini was getting fed up with annoying “robocalls” offering a dubious scheme to cut the interest rate on his credit card balance — especially since he doesn’t carry a balance. So he decided to retaliate.
After all, automated voice calls are more than annoying — they’re illegal.The Telemarketing Sales Rule, a consumer protection law, bans robocalls for the purpose of making sales. Consequently, the calls have become a signature tactic of financial scammers, who aren’t concerned about legal niceties.
“They kept calling me again and again — it was very annoying,” said Bertini, a math teacher in Connecticut.
For other people, the calls are worse than an inconvenience. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that card rate scams have taken more than $100 million from people who could hardly afford to lose the money. The fraudsters promise to cut your rates in return for an upfront fee of several hundred dollars, then they fail to deliver on the promise. Hawkers of dubious grant programs, auto warranties and other schemes also use robocalls to find victims.
Finally, instead of just hanging up, Bertini pretended to go along. The caller promised to cut the interest rate on his cards. When a live voice replaced the recorded one, Bertini feigned enthusiasm for the idea. Then when the caller started telling him how to make his payment for the service, he made some excuse for a delay and put the call on hold. And left it there.
Bertini said it was satisfying to feel that he’d made the scammer waste time, but after using the trick repeatedly, it backfired. The brush-off apparently got under the skin of one caller, who decided to tie up Bertini’s phone by calling him back repeatedly.
The official advice on handling these calls does not involve tricking the caller into thinking they’ve found a victim. The FTC recommends hanging up, as a first step, and filing a complaint. Don’t press “1” to talk to a live representative, even to have your name removed from their list — it could just invite more calls. And most important: Don’t fall for tempting promises of having the interest rate slashed on your outstanding balance. You can apply for a low-rate balance transfer card yourself — and if you don’t qualify, a fly-by-night telesales operation is not going to change that.
But what can be done about the annoying calls? The FTC estimates that one prolific service made 2.5 billion automated calls during an 18-month period on behalf of shady financial companies. The agency has launched a “Robocall Challenge,” offering a $50,000 bounty for the creator of a technique that can block the calls.
In the meantime, Bertini said he has found a partial solution. His phone service lets him block up to 13 numbers, so he checked back in his records for the primary sources of junk calls and put them on his personal blacklist. He’s noticed a sharp — and welcome — decrease in robocalls.
The tactic can have mixed results. Robocallers routinely trick the caller ID system by faking the number they seem to be calling from. So if you have to pay to block a number, consider the cost, especially since the number you are blocking might change soon anyway.
Bertini’s cable-based phone service lets him block several numbers at no charge, and he’s prepared to fight. “I think they’re constantly changing the number from which they dial,” he said. When that happens, “we’ll be playing the blocking game.”