En español | Federal officials on Tuesday announced a national crackdown on illegal robocalls — many targeting older Americans — that were used by scammers to pitch products including medical-alerts systems, solar panels and sexual-performance aids.
"We're all fed up with the tens of billions of illegal robocalls we get every year,” said Andrew Smith, who directs the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection.
There were 94 enforcement actions in the crackdown, dubbed “Operation Call it Quits” and announced by Smith at a news conference at the FTC's regional office in Chicago.
"In all, we have silenced three billion robocalls,” he said, saying the estimate arose after the most egregious “serial dialers” had been permanently banned from telemarketing. Some also were slapped with huge fines and penalties.
Still, Smith's figure is lower than the estimated 4.7 billion robocalls made in the U.S. in May alone, according to YouMail, a California call-blocking company. In 2018, the estimate was more than 47.8 billion robocalls, the company said.
Smith acknowledged that robocalls won't go away completely while urging law enforcement, the private sector and consumers to work together to curb the problem.
Three tips to beat robocalls
- Hang up. If you hear a pitch, end the call and don't purchase anything. Don't press “1” to speak to an operator, since it signals your phone number is a working number — and that could trigger more annoying calls.
- Use a call-blocking service.
- Report unwanted calls to the FTC.
— Andrew Smith, Federal Trade Commission
Many of the just-announced cases are new. Others were settlements to end earlier enforcement actions by the FTC, which has civil jurisdiction; it falls to state and federal prosecutors to pursue criminal cases.
Medical alerts that were not free
One of the FTC settlements involved Lifewatch, Inc., which bombarded primarily older consumers with at least a billion robocalls touting “free” medical-alert systems, authorities said. It often called people whose numbers were on the national Do Not Call Registry. It also “spoofed,” or disguised, its own phone numbers so they would not appear correctly on caller ID.
The robocalls said the $400 medical-alert systems were “free” and consumers would not be charged monitoring fees until they received and activated the systems, but consumers’ debit or credit cards were charged immediately, authorities said.
The prerecorded messages often falsely claimed the alert system had been endorsed or recommended by reputable groups, including the National Institute on Aging or the AARP. The FTC thanked the two groups, among others, for assistance in the case.
The FTC shares tips on how to stop calls from fake phone numbers
Scammers sell everything under the sun
Other highlights Tuesday:
- Another settlement involved Redwood Scientific, which used robocalls to deceptively market dissolvable, oral film strips said to be effective to aid sexual performance, quitting smoking and losing weight. The firm made misleading claims, enrolled consumers in auto-ship continuity plans without their consent and did not honor money-back guarantees, authorities said.
- A firm operating under names that include “8 Figure Dream Lifestyle” charged consumers up to $22,500 for programs that would purportedly see them make as much as $10,000 in earnings in 10 to 14 days. In fact, consumers who bought into the program “rarely earned substantial income, typically lost their entire investment, and often incurred significant loans and credit card debt,” authorities said.
- Another settlement involved a group making illegal calls to develop leads for home solar-energy companies. It called millions of phone numbers; one number it called allegedly received more than 1,000 calls in one year.
- A new case involves robocalls to “financially distressed” consumers, who, for a fee, were offered to have their credit card interest rates lowered to zero. But the defendants “tricked” the consumers into providing financial information — including Social Security and credit card numbers—and in many cases consumers who did not buy the services found out the defendants had applied for one or more credit cards in the consumers’ names without consent.
FTC officials, in a news release, said the efforts are part of a drive to “help stem the tide of universally loathed prerecorded telemarketing calls."
Also Tuesday, the FTC announced it is providing more information, including videos, about how to stop unwanted calls.
On another front, earlier in June the Federal Communications Commission gave phone companies the green light to choose to start blocking unwanted calls without having to ask customers’ permission first. Previously, customers had to opt in for call blocking.