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Hey Matt:

Every day, seven days a week, I get odd, distracting, disruptive phone calls that drive me to drink! No, not the ones from my ex. The phone rings, I answer with my usual happy salutation, then I may or may not hear a “click” or a momentary pause. Then a voice that, judging from the accent, is, shall we say, from “out of town” starts an obvious script with: “Hello, my name is Ramma-lamma-ding-dong and I am simply calling to update your free...” or, I get a recording promising that I can get ga-zillions in “free grant money” (or variations on the theme). Here are the issues I would love your thoughts on: 1. I am on the national do-not-call list. My phone is for customers and friends. 2. The call-back may be blocked, 3. The number displayed may be something like 000-000-0000 4. Or, when the number displayed, if apparently ”legitimate,” is called back, it comes back as invalid or “unavailable” without the option of leaving a message. There have been times (and I can print out the proof) that the same number tries to reach me 1/2 dozen times a day! Sometimes 15 minutes apart! What...if anything...can a citizen of this fine country do to track these knuckle-heads down and give them a telephonic wedgie?

— Bill Thompson, San Diego

Do Not Call

I like that telephonic wedgie idea. But of course, it’s a dream never to be fulfilled. So, I guess from your description you’re talking about a land line registered to a business. (It’s flat-out illegal nationwide to make robocalls to cell phones or “voice over IP.”) But business-to-business land-lines and fax machines are not covered by the Do Not Call laws. You’re fair game. The system has worked pretty well for the nine years it’s been around. But recently robocallers seem to have decided to flout the law and call anyway, since it’s so tough for people to ID them. A survey of several states shows that the top consumer complaints are about robocalls.

The odd pauses and clicks you hear are the robomachinery registering that your phone’s been answered by a live person. This isn’t necessarily what they want. They know you’ll hang up, so they’d rather talk to your answering device, which will sit still and listen. If instead, a live person comes on the line, they’re just following the law. Robocalls must have a live person to speak to you to tell you who they are and give you the chance to opt out on their exciting robo-offer. A bit o’ advice? If a robomessage gives you the chance to “press star if you don’t want to hear this message,” don’t do it. Hang up. Otherwise, all you’ve done is notify the caller that the phone number is good and is answered by a human being who speaks English.

As for blocked and fake call-back numbers, anyone can block their number when calling out. But robocallers make their calls through a PBX board — a lot of robophones connected to the main phone line through a single point. One clever thing you can do with a PBX board is program in a fake call-back number. And calling half a dozen times a day at 15-minute intervals? That’s what robophones do best.

Back to who makes these calls, other than people offering you low-cost lottery winnings. Do Not Call federal legislation excludes certain types of businesses from their restrictions. The feds claim that because of FCC/FTC jurisdictional limitations, they can’t regulate calls from charities, legitimate telephone surveys, or companies with which you’ve established a business relationship. And, because legislators are so good at passing laws that don’t apply to them personally, political parties are also exempt. Of course. (Grandma sent care packages of ear plugs and Xanax to the Florida Alices recently.) So are your creditors or their collection agencies, which are ruled by a different set of laws.

Beware of that “businesses with which you have established a relationship.” That includes any business you’ve called with an inquiry, a business you’ve submitted a job app to, a business you’ve bought something from. See that “Call Now!” number in that infomercial; “We only have a dozen left!”; “You only have five minutes to respond”? Don’t do it. That’s a “business relationship.”

Your only recourses are to file a complaint with the FTC or FCC (have very specific details at hand) or, if you are talking to a live person, you can request to be put on that company’s Do Not Call list, and they’re obligated to comply. But let’s say you signed up on Do Not Call many years ago. There’s an outside chance that your number has automatically been removed. This will eventually happen if you abandon the number or it’s otherwise shut off, even briefly; but it might also occur automatically if you make any kind of service or billing change with your phone company, even if your service is not interrupted. Check your DNC status at donotcall.gov.

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