Phone scammers using new tactics

IRS-phone-scam-prevent-fraudFrom Phone scammers using new tactics, clarionledger.com

PDF:Phone scammers using new tactics

It’s hard to imagine a world without caller ID. But it really wasn’t but a couple of decades ago that most people had no idea who might be on the other end of the call when their phones rang. Since so many calls even then turned out to be from telemarketers or scammers, many people just relied on their answering machines if they wanted to screen their calls.

Having been invented almost as soon as the telephone itself, the answering machine helped record business calls for many decades before finally becoming affordable enough for everyday consumers in the 1980s. When they finally had access to answering machines, people began to “screen” their calls, introducing the notion of being able to put off answering a phone call (or ignore it completely). So when the first Caller ID units were introduced in the 1980s, they became instantly popular. For the first time, you could actually see who was calling while the call was in progress — and decide whether to answer.

Of course, telemarketers and scammers found ways to get their calls through, with some unscrupulous companies even beginning to “spoof” phone numbers to fool the Caller ID by hiding the real number from which the call originated. Since then, phone scammers and potential victims have been engaged in a sort of virtual arms race, with each side aided by technology designed to defeat the other’s strategies.

Recently, Inc. magazine ran a story by Joseph Steinberg alerting consumers to three ways phone scammers can steal your money. The first involves a scammer calling your phone using an autodialer (a machine programmed to call thousands of numbers), then hanging up before anybody can answer. They do this repeatedly, in a bid to pique your curiosity so you’ll call the number. A second variant involves the scammer calling your number, waiting for an answer, then introducing the sound of crying or screaming. At this point, the scammer hangs up, hoping you’ll call back to see if you can help.

And in the third tactic, the criminal texts you with an alarming message that someone is in danger of being hurt or killed, with a request that you call back. By placing a call to one of these numbers, you can incur huge charges on your phone bill, and they often aren’t included on phone plans.

These scams are known as “473,” “Ring-and-Run” or “One Ring” scams, and the scammers only want to get you to call specific numbers so they can bill you for huge charges. The number 473 is the area code for some island nations, but a lot of other numbers and countries are used as well. (Criminals, noted Steinberg, adjusted their tactics after consumers learned to avoid making calls to numbers starting with 809.)

This latest advice comes on the heels of what’s become known as the “yes” call scam, in which a criminal gets someone on the phone and asks you a seemingly innocuous question such as “Can you hear me?” only to find that the crook has recorded your “yes” answer and used it as evidence you ordered a product you never agreed to order.

To help you avoid these scams, Steinberg has this advice: “If you miss a call, whomever called can send you a text message (or leave a voicemail),” he advises. “If they did neither, and you don’t know who called, don’t worry about it. Also, remember that it’s unlikely that someone you do not know who is in distress at a location with which you are not familiar would dial a random number in another country and ask you to help them — they would call the police.”

To see Steinberg’s excellent article (including a list of area codes of concern), visit http://on.inc.com/2na78JY.

Robocallers disguise true purpose

From Robocallers disguise true purpose, clarionledger.com

Federal and state law enforcement agencies recently announced they had closed the investigation into an illegal telemarketing operation that allegedly placed billions of “robocalls” promising consumers a free cruise to the Bahamas in exchange for taking a phone survey. After the survey was over, the recipients got a sales pitch for cruises and various vacation packages instead of their promised free cruise.

This case has been brewing for several years. In 2011 and 2012, a company called Caribbean Cruise Lines and its partners made phones ring across the continent, raking in millions of dollars. During the scheme, a reported 12 million to 15 million robocalls a day were made, often under the guise that the calls were being used to conduct political research. This is just the latest in a string of investigations and settlements that began in 2015, but the recent announcement (the fifth and final consent judgment) closes the books on this far-reaching operation.

The latest action prohibits owner Fred Accuardi and his companies from assisting or participating in operations that violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule and other applicable laws. In previous judgments, fines of $1.35 million had been levied, but all but $2,500 of those fines were suspended after the defendants said they couldn’t pay.

Mississippi’s Public Service Commission and attorney general’s office were among the 10 state regulators (along with federal authorities) recognized for their role in shutting down the operation. “I commend the FTC, my fellow attorneys general and the Mississippi Public Service Commission for their hard work and dedication in the fight to protect consumers from this type of illegal business practices,” noted Attorney General Jim Hood last week.

The original complaint charged Accuardi and his companies with “assisting and facilitating the illegal calls by providing robocallers with hundreds of telephone numbers, making it possible for them to choose and change the names that would appear on consumers’ caller ID devices, funding a part of the robocalling campaigns, and hiding the robocallers’ identities from authorities,” the FTC noted in a news release.

While you’re unlikely to be getting more robocalls from this particular operation, most phone users get these calls every day. The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for enforcing a number of rules and regulations of the growing robocalling industry. Here are a few points of the law regarding robocalling, courtesy of the FCC:

  • Most calls made without your consent are illegal. A company may call your landline or cellphone only if you have previously given your consent to call them. You can give permission on paper, by filling out an online form, or by pressing buttons on your phone in response to specific requests. According to the FCC, “telemarketers are no longer able to make telemarketing robocalls to your landline home telephone based solely on an ‘established business relationship’ that you may have established when purchasing something from a business or contacting the business to ask questions.”
  • There are exceptions. Certain robocalls are permissible, such as those made to announce school closings, airline flight cancellations and for a number of other reasons. Robocalls made to landlines (not cellphones) are permissible if they are for “market research or polling,” as well as calls made on behalf of nonprofit groups. In such cases, the caller is required to tell you at the beginning of the message who’s calling and list a contact number for you to call for further information.
  • You can opt out. The FCC requires telemarketers to give you the opportunity to opt out of receiving future calls immediately during a prerecorded telemarketing call through an automated menu. “The opt-out mechanism must be announced at the outset of the message and must be available throughout the duration of the call,” notes the FCC. You should also place your numbers on the National Do-Not-Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov).. You can register for Mississippi’s Do-Not-Call registry at  https://www.psc.state.ms.us/nocall/subscriber.aspx or by calling 1-86NOCALLMS (1-866-622-5567).
  • File a complaint. You can report robocalls to the FCC by visiting http://bit.ly/1Muo1aL by phone at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); or by mail to: Federal Communications Commission, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, 445 12th St., S.W., Washington, DC 20554.

Law puts dent in telemarketing scams

AdobeStock_95445790.jpegvia Law puts dent in telemarketing scams, clarionledger.com

From the moment you start talking to a telephone scammer, your chances of escaping unscathed drop precipitously with every second. These people have spent years perfecting their craft, and are skilled at reaching their goal of getting paid.

Phone crooks know that, if they can get you to pay in certain (anonymous and untraceable) ways, their chances of success are much higher. In recent years, some telemarketers (both legitimate and scammers) have started taking payment through cash-to-cash transfers or cash-reload card PINs. Some scammers have even been able to convince victims to go and purchase iTunes cards and other types of gift cards.

The law has been pretty slow to catch up with the fast-evolving bag of scam tricks, but adjustments to an old law might put a dent in their plans.  In June, new provisions of the Telemarketing Sales Rule went into effect, making it illegal for telemarketers to request or accept payments via cash-to-cash money transfers (like those from MoneyGram and Western Union) and PINS from cash PINs from cash reload cards like MoneyPak and Vanilla Reload. The revisions were announced in November.

“The amended TSR also bans telemarketers from calling to ask for your bank account information and using it to create a ‘remotely created check’ that you never see, or sign,” notes the FTC’s Bridget Smalls in a recent blog post. “If a telemarketer you haven’t done business with calls to ask for your bank account number for any purpose, say ‘No’ and hang up.”

Here are a few more things the TSR’s new teeth helps control:

Unauthorized billing. Telemarketers must get your “express informed consent” to be charged, and the amount must be specifically authorized. “If a telemarketer has your account information before the call — known as “pre-acquired account telemarketing” — and offers you goods or services on a free trial basis before charging you automatically,” notes the FTC on its website, “the telemarketer must get your permission to use a particular account number, ask you to confirm your desire to approve a charge by giving the telemarketer at least the last four digits of the account number and, for your protection, create an audio recording of the entire phone transaction.”

Call abandonment. Telemarketers are required to connect their call to a sales representative within two seconds of the consumer’s greeting. This will reduce the number of “dead air” or hang-up calls you get from telemarketers. In addition, when the telemarketer doesn’t have a representative standing by, a recorded message must play to let you know who’s calling and the number they’re calling from. The law prohibits a recorded sales pitch in a cold call. And to give you time to answer the phone, the telemarketer may not hang up on an unanswered call before 15 seconds or four rings.

Requires caller ID transmission. Telemarketers must transmit their telephone number and if possible, their name, to your caller ID service. This protects your privacy, increases accountability on the telemarketer’s part and helps in law enforcement efforts. (Of course, illicit operations might still “spoof” the caller ID to make you think it’s from a local number.)

Restricts Robocalling. Most businesses need your written permission before they can call you with prerecorded telemarketing messages, or robocalls. Businesses using robocalls have to tell you at the beginning of the message how you can stop future calls, and must provide an automated opt-out you can activate by voice or key-press throughout the call. If the message could be left on your voicemail or answering machine, businesses also have to provide a toll-free number at the beginning of the message that will connect to an automated opt-out system you can use any time.

It’s important to keep in mind that some prerecorded messages still are permitted, such as the airline letting you know your flight’s been delayed or cancelled, reminders from your doctor, dentist or school, and other categories that don’t promote goods or services. You can still get pre-recorded calls from political campaigns, calls from certain health care providers and messages from a business contacting you to collect a debt. Prerecorded messages from banks, telephone carriers and charities also are exempt from these rules if the banks, carriers or charities make the calls themselves.

Mississippi no-call law expands to cellphones

telemarketer2-320x206_lwf3iz

armonk.dailyvoice.com

via Moak: Mississippi no-call law expands to cellphones, clarionledger.com, 4/7/2016

You’ll soon be able to add your cellphone number to Mississippi’s “No-Call” list, effective July 1. Gov. Phil Bryant this week signed the bill, which will become effective July 1.

Central District Public Service Commissioner Cecil Brown noted in a news release that the measure (SB 2366) hopes to control telemarketing at a time when the number of Mississippians with telephone landlines is decreasing and cellphone use is increasing. Mississippi is among states with the highest “cell-only” households, in which consumers have ditched their traditional landlines for cell phones.

Mississippi’s “No-Call” list became effective in 2003, giving consumers much-needed relief from annoying telemarketing calls. Telemarketers must purchase a list of numbers before they start calling, with steep fines for violations. But the service didn’t cover cell phones. A growing chorus of advocacy groups, lawmakers and citizens have been requesting for years that something be done about cell phone solicitations.

“We are very pleased that Mississippi citizens will now be able to add their cellphone numbers to the No Call Registry,” Brown noted.  “Consumers are tired of unsolicited phone calls and are ready for this relief.  I plan to add my cellphone number on July 1.”

Many states have Do-Not-Call lists, as does the U.S. government. Keep in mind that adding your name to either or both lists should protect you from the lion’s share of telemarketing calls, but you can still get calls from exempted causes and organizations, such as nonprofit organizations and political calls.

“It’s important that our laws keep up with new technology, especially as more and more Mississippians cut the cord on their landlines,” added Attorney General Jim Hood. “The passage of SB 2366 is a victory for Mississippi consumers who are tired of picking up their cell phones only to learn it’s an out-of-state telemarketer on the other end of the line. This measure should help curb those annoying and unwanted calls.”

Once you’ve added your number to the list, it can take up to two months before it takes effect. To register your home landline number, or your cellphone number, or to file a complaint, you may call 1-800-356-6430 or visit our website www.psc.state.ms.us.

Feds shut down solar marketing scheme

Solar panel on the desert

Stock Photo

via Moak: Hucksters market solar panels, clarionledger.com, 3/16/2016

There’s a lot of interest these days in solar and other alternative energy sources. As consumers have looked for ways to lower their energy bills, solar energy has long been touted as a key component in the nation’s energy future. However, in the decades since solar energy has been part of the discussion of America’s energy future, development has been slow. (I remember writing a paper about solar energy back in high school about 35 years ago.)

The price of solar installations is still beyond the reach of many consumers and often still outweighs the potential cost savings. That fact, coupled with falling energy costs of late, have presented constant challenges to the growth of the solar industry. Still, there is increasing demand and interest in “rooftop” solar systems.

That demand makes consumers vulnerable to hucksters. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an operation that is accused of “bombarding” consumers with millions of recorded calls, which allegedly alarmed consumers by telling them there was “urgent” news about their energy bills, but they were really just a way to generate leads for companies selling solar systems.

According to the agency, defendants Francisco Salvat and his companies illegally made more than 1.3 million pre-recorded calls to consumers with phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, warning them that they needed to act quickly to avoid a coming spike in their electric bills.

“Mr. Salvat’s companies ignored the Do Not Call Registry and made illegal robocalls,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Breaking the law isn’t a great way for a company to introduce itself to potential customers.”

If they answered the robocalls, consumers were given the option to “push one” to lower their energy bills, which then transferred them to a telemarketer who tried to sell them on an expensive solar panel assembly. If they agreed, the telemarketer would schedule an appointment with a private solar company, selling the customer’s information to them in the form of a sales lead. However, the FTC claims that problems arose when consumers’ request to be taken off the call list were ignored.

The FTC is seeking a federal court order permanently barring the defendants from the allegedly illegal conduct, as well as civil penalties for their alleged telemarketing violations. The Department of Justice filed the complaint on behalf of the FTC in a California U.S. District Court against KFJ Marketing, LLC; Sunlight Solar Leads, LLC; Go Green Education; and Francisco J. Salvat, individually and as an officer of each of the three businesses.

The businesses are charged with violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule by calling consumers whose names are in the national Do Not Call registry; continuing to call consumers who had requested no further calls; and making illegal robocalls. The complaint requests civil penalties, relief for consumers, and a court order to bar the activities in the future.

If you’ve had similar issues, you can file a complaint with the FTC here. Legitimate solar energy companies abide by a set of ethics called the SEIA Solar Business Code, which guides how they will sell and market solar systems. For more information and advice on solar systems, check out this column I wrote back in November.

South gets lion’s share of robocalls

fracking-robocalls

shellypalmer.com

via Moak: Rise of robocalls, clarionledger.com, 2/25/2016

It’s a daily annoyance for some; a nightmare for others. You’re going about your daily business and your phone rings. You don’t recognize the number, but answer it anyway, only to find a short silence on the other end, then the voice of a recorded message or a click as you’re transferred to a telemarketer or debt collector. You’ve been robocalled.

Robocalling (automated dialing) is occurring with increasing frequency. Recently, a website called Youmail released its statistics on robocalling, revealing that (at least) 2.3 billion robocalls were made in January alone. That means that 858 robocalls are being placed every second of every day, statistically speaking.

According to Youmail (which sells call-blocking and voicemail services), the most robocalls are being made by debt collectors, hounding you because you’re late on that credit card payment. Fifteen of the top 20 numbers reported by Youmail’s National Robocall Index were from debt collectors, by themselves amounting to 175 million calls during January. The top caller: a “bank debt collection company” (possibly credit-card giant Capital One) placed 34.7 million of those calls, all by itself.

Robocalls are easy and cheap. Using special software and mass-dialing technology, debt collectors – or sales operations — can input thousands or millions of telephone numbers, then call consumers on a preset schedule. Although the vast majority of calls are blocked or ignored, enough must get through that it’s a profitable venture.  According to Youmail, about one in six calls are robocalls.

It also seems from the Youmail report that we Southerners get the majority of robocalls. Of the top 20 area codes, 15 are in Southern cities. (No Mississippi cities were listed, but it’s a safe bet that Magnolia State residents get a lot of those calls.) The top-robocalled area codes were for Atlanta (three Atlanta area codes made the list), Houston, Dallas and Birmingham. Other Southern cities included Fort Lauderdale, Baton Rouge, Memphis, Charlotte and Columbia, South Carolina. Unsurprisingly, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., also made the list. Atlanta residents were by far the most likely to get robocalled, with enough robocalls to ensure every Atlantan got at least 30.

All this spiking activity doesn’t even count the number of political and survey robocalls we get; since a primary is coming up here in just a few days, you’re likely to get your share if you haven’t already.

If you read this column on a regular basis, you might remember that I wrote about some new robocalling guidelines from the Federal Communications Commission. In June, the FCC adopted a set of rulings which would help address the growth of nuisance robocalling. According to the FCC, robocalls are the largest source of complaints to the agency (more than 215,000 in 2014).

The wide-ranging measures encouraged the growth of technologies that could block or restrict robocalls; gave consumers the right to revoke their consent to get robocalls; empower consumers to stop companies from calling a number that has been recently reassigned to another consumer; and protections to keep consumers from getting a call just because they’re in an acquaintance’s phone.

Indeed, some companies are rising to the occasion. One promising company, Nomorobo, offers technology that can recognize and block robocalls, but it isn’t currently available for cell phones and traditional landline phones (only Voice-over-IP, or VOIP is supported.) There are also numerous apps that promise to block cell phone calls, some of which are free, some not. CTIA – The Wireless Association (previously known as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association) has a list of apps athttp://www.ctia.org/your-wireless-life/consumer-tips/blocking-robocalls.

Of course, robocalling technology has its upside. Schools, for example, make effective use of robocalling to let parents know of school emergencies and closings, and your bank can let you know if your balance is getting low. But the biggest growth in the robocalling industry isn’t so positive; millions of customers lose billions of dollars each year by robocalling scammers.

For now, it appears that robocalling is here to stay, but you aren’t powerless. If you get a call and don’t recognize the number, you can just ignore it or save the number to a “scam” contact in your phone’s address book, and make its ringtone silent. You can also report the number, but without a little more information, it’s difficult to make a case.

One of the best options has always been – and still is – the Do-Not-Call Registry. If you are getting unwanted calls, it could help to place your number on the list. The federal list is at http://www.donotcall.gov; the Mississippi list is athttps://www.psc.state.ms.us/nocall/nocall.html.

‘Travel Club’ nets $3M fine for robocalling

via Moak: ‘Travel Club’ nets $3M fine for robocalling, on clarionledger.com, 8/17/2015

We have written extensively in this space about robocalling (telemarketing by automated calling machines). Thanks to some recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission, consumers must give their consent to receive robocalls.

But even before enforcement of the new rules began, the FCC was investigating robocalling activities. One such investigation came to a head last week, when the FCC levied a whopping $2.96 million fine against a Florida company called Travel Club Marketing and related companies.

The FCC accused the companies and their owner, Olen Miller, of making at least 185 unsolicited, pre-recorded advertising calls to more than 142 consumers (the majority of whom had already placed their numbers on the National Do-Not-Call Registry). The calls were made to sell timeshares, travel deals and “free” vacations.

“It is unacceptable to invade consumers’ privacy by bombarding them with unwanted and intrusive robocalls,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau. “All companies, and their owners, who thwart the Do-Not-Call list should expect to face severe consequences.” The forfeiture notice amounts to the largest ever for robocalling violations, signaling that the FCC is looking hard at companies that use automated technology to call consumers.

If you are getting robocalls, you can file a complaint with the FCC at https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us. And it’s always a good idea to list your number with the National Do Not Call Registry, at http://DoNotCall.gov, or by calling (888) 382-1222.

Check out alarm system salesmen, Chaney says

via Moak: Check out alarm system salesmen, Chaney says, published at clarionledger.com on 7/31/2015.

Home security is big business these days. According to the research firm Ibisworld, the home security market is worth about $22 billion and is growing rapidly. But, as with most industries, there are also concerns. As awareness of home security systems has grown along with the number of companies eager to get in on the action, so have solicitations — some of questionable legitimacy. Since people who install or service monitoring systems can have access to your home, it’s important that you know the company and its representatives can be trusted.

Recent telemarketing calls to Mississippi residents have gotten the attention of Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who’s also the fire marshal. He sent out a reminder this week: Anyone who sells, installs or monitors home security alarm systems in the state must be licensed by the state fire marshal’s office — in other words, him.

“We are getting numerous reports of robo-calls, a number of them from a Texas area code, informing citizens they have been selected to receive a free alarm system and the company will send someone out to install it,” Chaney said in a news release. “We are again reminding citizens to either ask for the company’s State Fire Marshal-issued license number, or, remember that if you agree to the promotion, the company or individual who comes out to install the system must have a license and photo ID issued by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Ask them to show you these credentials.”

Chaney’s office is empowered to administer the Mississippi Electronic Protection Licensing Act, passed in 2006. The act requires that companies selling or installing security systems or services must adhere to several requirements, including submitting a bond, undergoing criminal background checks and receiving competency training.

So, if you’re solicited by someone promoting or selling alarm systems or monitoring services, here are some potential red flags:

  • Offers that promise a “free” system or claims your current system is old, out of date or in need of an upgrade or replacement. (If the salesperson has not examined your system, they would not have this information.)
  • Claims that your home has been chosen as a “model” home and is eligible for a free system and/or reduced monitoring fee. (These are known tactics that play upon consumers’ ego or desire to get an “exclusive” deal, but may not be legitimate.)
  • Guarantees you will receive a reduction in your homeowner’s insurance when a system is purchased. (Most insurance companies do offer such incentives, but there may be conditions. Only your insurance company can determine your rate or discounts; contact your agent to verify this.)
  • Salespersons who come to your home claiming to be with your current company. Call your company and verify.
  • Claims your company has gone out of business or that your account has been purchased from your company. Call your company and verify.
  • Claims of increased crime in your neighborhood. Call your local police and verify.

Chaney added that if an individual is unable to produce such an ID, that person may not be licensed or authorized to operate in the state and should be reported to the state fire marshal at (888) 648-0877 or (601) 359-1061. If the individual acts in a suspicious manner, contact local law enforcement authorities. If the individual is in a vehicle, write down and report the license tag number.

FCC: Let consumers have power to stop robocalls

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 6/4/2015.

PDF: Robocalls1

I had just fired up the lawn mower when my youngest son handed me my cellphone. “It’s for you,” he said, and walked away. On the other end was a pleasant female voice. “Good afternoon,” she said, and paused. “Hello,” I answered. “This is Diane from Holiday Cruise Lines. Do you have a minute to talk?” she said, then paused again. “Not really, Diane,” I replied. “I’m just getting ready to cut the grass.” “OK, I can see you’re busy, but I’d like to talk to you about a great deal.” “Really, it’s not a good time,” I replied. “How would you like a free cruise?” she continued, apparently suffering from hearing loss. “I’m not interested, and really, I need to hang up now,” I said, my blood pressure beginning to spike. “But aren’t you interested in a free cruise?” At that point, it hit me: I was talking to a machine.

Ordinarily, I’m pretty good at spotting a robocall, but this one was pretty good. Automated calling technology has evolved considerably since the old days when computer-generated voices sounded tinny, halting and almost comical — sort of like the “Greetings, Professor Falken; shall we play a game?” voice used by Joshua in 1983’s “WarGames.” Today’s technology can trick you into thinking you’re speaking with a real person. Companies that use robocall technology know that many people are less likely to hang up quickly if they perceive there’s a real, fleshand- blood, just-trying-to-makeends- meet person on the other end.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, unwanted calls and texts are the top consumer complaint to the FCC. The FCC received more than 215,000 Telephone Consumer Protection Act complaints in 2014. And since 44 percent of Americans have cut their landline service and rely exclusively on our mobile devices, concerns are rising about how telemarketers and scammers are targeting these devices.

It would be hard to find anybody who likes getting a robocall or unsolicited marketing text, and enforcement cases are mounting. In March, a company called Caribbean Cruise Lines paid $500,000 to settle claims brought in Florida federal court after allegations of billions of unsolicited robocalls. And the aforementioned Holiday Cruise Lines was the subject of a massive class-action suit after allegedly sending unsolicited text messages.

This week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is circulating a proposal to give consumers more power to stop unwanted robocalls and texts to cell-phones. The proposal would close loopholes and strengthen laws already on the books.

“Consumers have the right to control the calls and texts they receive,” Wheeler said in a blog post. “And the FCC is moving to enforce those rights and protect consumers against robocalls, spam texts, and telemarketing.”

Here are a few provisions of his proposal:

  • Consumers would get more power to stop robocalls. Under the proposal, you and I could revoke our consent to receive robocalls and robotexts “in any reasonable way and at any time.” (This would apply to both cell phones and landlines.)
  • Carriers would be given greater ability to deploy software to block robocalls.
  • The status of reassigned numbers would be clarified. For example, if you get new phone service, and you are assigned a number that was previously used by someone else, your new number could already be on calling lists. (This
    defense has been used by some robocallers to justify calling people who have recently started using reassigned numbers.)
  • Under the proposal, robocallers could call one time and must stop
    thereafter.
  • What “autodialer” means would be clarified. The term “autodialer” describes a wide variety of technologies used to dial “random or sequential numbers.” Under the proposal, it would be more strictly defined so companies using the technology can’t defend it by saying changes in technology gives them a pass from following the rules.
  • Limited exceptions would be allowed. There are times when robocalls might be beneficial (such as when your child’s school announces a closing or your bank must alert you of possible fraud). The proposal would establish definitions of what is — and is not — acceptable use of the technology.
  • Existing protections provided by the Telephone Consumer Protect Act of 1991 would remain in place.
  • Your and my right to choose what kind of calls we receive would be affirmed.

Some have expressed concern the new rules could be devastating to some industries (such as political polling) but most consumer advocates have argued consumers need additional protections against rich and tech-savvy telemarketing companies.

And new technology (including the popular Nomorobo — which blocks cellphone telemarketing calls by comparing them against a list of approved numbers — is already being used by many) promises to further empower consumers.

If approved by the FCC at its June 18 open meeting, the new rules would take effect immediately.

Pre-screened vs. Pre-approved vs. pre-qualified…etc.

Getting the mail is not something I used to enjoy, but since I put my name on the Do-Not-Mail list several years ago, a trip to the mailbox is no longer the dark adventure it once was. I actually look forward to my daily trip to the end of the driveway (I know, sad, right?), although mostly it’s bills and solicitations I really don’t care about.

Placing my address on the list was a good thing; the amount of mail I was getting was no doubt giving the mailman a hernia. But now, since there’s less mail in the box, the ones I do get are more likely to get my attention.

Besides the obvious fact that Dish Network really, really wants me back, I noticed an offer yesterday from a company that said I was pre-selected to receive a special credit offer. “Wow,” I thought. “They must think a lot of me.” But then the part of my brain that is grounded in reality chimed in: “Not so fast, cowboy,” it twanged. “’Pre-selected’ means absolutely nothing.”

For years, the “pre-“ prefix has confused consumers. Sometimes it’s pre-approved, sometimes it’s pre-screened, sometimes, it’s pre-qualified. Whatever the prefix, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be getting a check – or even that you should. It’s a marketing ploy, designed to get your business. These “invitation-to-apply” (ITA) offers are sent to many, many consumers, some of whom will not qualify for a loan.

“Pre-” offers are generated from lists mostly supplied by the major credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion). It works like this: the credit card company purchases a list of consumers with selected criteria (for example, people with credit scores of 700 or better), then sends the consumers a direct mail marketing piece. The letter may include statements to stoke your ego such as “because of your good credit, we’re making this offer” or to make you feel like you’re part of an exclusive club, such as “not everyone will qualify”.

There are, in fact, some subtle differences what each term means, and if you have good credit, you probably will qualify for a loan. But should you? Besides the obvious pitfalls of debt, there are the conditions. Many of these loans promise zero percent interest rates, bonus airline miles, or any number of “hooks” to sweeten the offer. Often, promotional offers such as these have expiration dates or other conditions in the fine print.

So if you’re trying to use (for example) a one-year zero-percent-interest offer, be sure you read the conditions carefully. Transferring some debt to such a card can save you money on interest, but usually, the interest rate jumps after that period. (If you do this, be aggressive in wiping out the debt). And stay on your toes; being late with a payment can nullify the zero-interest offer and cost you in soaring interest and late fees.

Also, keep in mind – especially if you do have excellent credit – you can often get a better deal by shopping around. Go online. There are a plethora of sites out there to help you shop and compare. Nerdwallet.com, creditcards.com, creditkarma.com and many others can help you search for a good deal.

And since I mentioned opting out, if you want to slow down getting all that direct mail, there are a couple of good ways to do this:

  • com is a website run by the credit reporting industry. You can sign up electronically to stop the prescreened offers for five years (permanently if you mail in a form). And if you actually want to receive these offers, you can opt-in as well.
  • com is run by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), and allows you to place your name on the DMA’s opt-out list for five years.

So, whether you’re pre-screened, pre-selected, or whatever, keep in mind that the choice is still up to you.

Originally Published in the Clarion-Ledger in April, 2015.