I do not want to install solar panels on my roof or refinish my kitchen cabinets. I also do not want to paint my house, redo my floors, install a pool or resurface the one I don't have. My garage doors don't need to be replaced, my windows don't need to be washed, and I'm not planning on extending my car warranty or refinancing my mortgage any time soon.
So can you all please just stop calling me?
The only calls that seem to come in on our land line phone these days are unsolicited ones. It happens so much that when the phone rings now, we just automatically assume the caller will be someone trying to sell us something. And when we answer, there is that few-second delay from when I pick up the receiver to when the person on the other end warmly greets me like the long-lost friend I'm not. Lately, a few of these callers have taken to insisting that we've spoken before. I assume they mean when they called last month and I hung up on them then too.
Friends have suggested keeping a whistle near the phone and blowing it hard into the ear of the caller. "That'll show them" one guy told me. "When they ask for you by name, tell them you died last month," suggested another. My favorite, albeit the silliest, idea was this: "Ask them for their home phone number so you can call them right back."
Of course we all realize that none of this will stop the calls. It turns out that little will, and I think I know why: Unsolicited calls work. We may moan about how annoying we find the calls, but someone, somewhere is buying what the callers are selling. And what that is, in many cases, is a consumer scam. Apologies to the local house painter who is just out there hustling for more work in tough times, but the honest guys get lost among the scammers.
Unfortunately, there are few recourses for those of us who don't want to get called by telemarketers.
I am on the National Do Not Call list, which has got to be one of the best ideas by mankind that doesn't actually do much. In fact, a solicitor who called last week wanting me to donate money to improve prisoners' health care actually laughed out loud when I told him I was on the Do Not Call list. "Right," he said, "And how's that working out for you?"
Well, obviously it isn't.
The National Do Not Call Registry allows you to register your number if you don't want to hear from interstate telemarketers. If the marketer keeps calling after your number is on the list for 31 days, you can file a complaint with the website. In the 10 years of the registry's existence, it has handled a total of 106 enforcement actions against telemarketers.
Also, since the national registry only targets interstate marketers that just means you can't call me from one of the other 49 states. I live in California, which is a big state with a lot of people with itchy dialing fingers and they can call me as much as they'd like with impunity from the national registry. And they do. For the record, California does not have a state Do Not Call list. The state attorney general's website directs you to the national list.
Plus the National Do Not Call list is hardly all-encompassing. It doesn't cover political solicitations or charities or people doing surveys. Only telemarketing calls are covered -- calls that solicit sales of goods or services. The website itself acknowledges that registering won't stop all the calls -- just allow you to maybe get "fewer" of them.
If this is "fewer," I can only imagine what a full load would be. A spokesman for the registry says that the list has stopped 2.5 million illegal calls. I think that many came through on my land line last month alone.
No, I'm not suggesting that the registry is toothless. It just wrangled a $7.5 million civil penalty out of the Mortgage Investors Corporation, one of the nation's leading refinancers of veterans' home loans, for allegedly failing to remove consumers from its company call list upon demand, and misstating the terms of available loan products during telemarketing calls. It was the largest fine the FTC has ever collected for allegedly violating Do Not Call provisions and the settlement was announced on the 10-year anniversary of the Registry.
But while most of us relate to unsolicited calls on an annoyance level, the bigger factor is that they are frequently being made with the attempt to scam us -- and that's something that seniors (the ones who are actually home all day and answering the phone), are especially vulnerable to. When someone calls trying to extend your car warranty, there is a grain of believability in the legitimacy of the call: You have a three-year-old car, the warranty is running out and since the person calling clearly knows you are driving a Chevy, you assume this is your Chevy dealership calling. It often isn't, said a registry spokesman.
Right now, there are a lot of debt consolidation and debt reduction calls making the rounds. They take a guess that your credit card bill is high (like someone's isn't?) and offer you a chance to reduce your interest rate or consolidate all your debt on to one card. What's also going on is you are giving them lots of personal information about yourself over the phone and maybe even paying them a fee for the privilege of stealing your identity.
Things have gotten so bad with scammers that at the top of the Do Not Call Registry's website there is now a message that says: "Scammers have been making phone calls claiming to represent the National Do Not Call Registry. The calls claim to provide an opportunity to sign up for the Registry. These calls are not coming from the Registry or the Federal Trade Commission, and you should not respond to these calls." Wrap you head around that one for a minute: People are making unsolicited calls offering to sign you up to stop getting unsolicited calls.
But it all still comes down to this: A legitimate business would not want to waste time and money calling me when it knows that I don't want to hear from it. And just for the record, I have never -- never -- bought a single thing or service or contributed a nickel to anyone who called me unsolicited. I generally hang up.
So we may say that we wish these unsolicited calls would stop, but enough people are whipping out their wallets and as long as that keeps happening, the phone will keep ringing.
The Scam: The con artist sends a letter or email -- purportedly only to a few recipients but actually to several thousand -- making an offer that would result in a large payoff for the victim. The details vary, but generally the story is that a person, often the wife or son of a deposed African dictator, knows about some unclaimed fortune that they are willing to share with the scam victim in return for an advanced fee (e.g. bail money for the imprisoned millionaire). Once money starts coming in, the con artist will continue asking for more, claiming that problems have arisen. How To Protect Yourself: The FBI advises that if you "receive a letter from Nigeria asking you to send personal or banking information, send the letter to the U.S. Secret Service, your local FBI office or U.S. Postal Inspection Service." You can also register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's Complaint Assistant here.
The Scam: Criminals set up craigslist accounts advertising the sale of desirable items (e.g. cars, computers, iPhones) at too good to be true prices. A meeting is set up with the victim in a remote location where they're robbed upon arrival. How To Protect Yourself: Detective Frank Avila of the West Valley LAPD advises "good places to meet are local police stations or malls. Criminals are less likely to conduct crimes or illegal activity in public areas where lots of people are present."
The Scam: The victim is contacted and informed that they've won some sort of free gift, vacation or prize but that they have to pay "postage and handling" or some sort of tax before they receive their reward. How To Protect Yourself: If you've legitimately won something, you should never have to pay any sum to receive it. It's almost impossible to get your money back if you've been cheated over the phone, so before you buy anything by telephone, remember not to buy from unfamiliar companies, always ask for and wait until you receive written material about an offer and always check out unfamiliar companies with your local consumer protection agency. From the FBI: "Legitimate businesses understand that you want more information about their company and are happy to comply."
The Scam: The con artist, acting on behalf of a fake company, promises a sage investment with ridiculous returns for the victim. The fake company takes the money, but no investment is made. Instead the money goes into their pockets -- and disappears just as quickly as the company soon will. The old adage holds true: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. How To Protect Yourself: According to the FBI: "Do not invest in anything unless you understand the deal. Con artists rely on complex transactions and fault logic to 'explain' fraudulent investment schemes." Always be wary of any investment that offers the promise of extremely high yields.
The Scam: Homeowners are distracted by an individual while other sneak into their homes, stealing valuables, cash and jewelry. The ruse burglary can take place under the guise of a gas leak that needs to be stopped, a tree next door that needs trimming but must be reached fromt he angle of a neighbor's lawn, or indeed anything that will result in the preoccupation of a resident while they are unknowingly robbed by other accomplices. Ruse burglaries sometimes lead to home invasion situations that can pose the risk of assault or other violent crimes taking place. How To Protect Yourself: If someone is asking you to step outside of your home for any reason, don't. Instead, offer to call 911 for them. If someone claims they need to do urgent work on behalf of a utility company, call the utility company and verify the work.
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