Remember Rachel, that woman from "cardholder services," who always seemed to call you during dinner? She didn't really exist, of course, and was merely the robotic voice of a scam that tricked thousands of people into buying a fraudulent service, while annoying millions of others.
The FTC ordered Rachel's owners to knock off the "robocalls" to landlines and hit them with a $9.2 million fine in 2013. But Rachel is still around. It turns out she's a computer program used by other scammers, according to Mitch Katz, a spokesman for the FTC.
Each month, the agency gets approximately 260,000 complaints about robocalls, Katz says. There's no way to know how many millions of people complain to state agencies, but the fact that 39 state attorneys general asked the FCC, which has jurisdiction, to shut down robocallers suggests they too receive lots of complaints.
The FCC is considering an order that would force carriers to develop technology to block robocalls. It's unclear if such a move would be legal; the carriers argue that it wouldn't. The FTC, however, believes it would be legal and sent a statement to the FCC saying just that.
From the FTC statement:
"Law violators are now using the Internet to place large numbers of illegal telemarketing calls, inexpensively, often from overseas, and in a manner that allows them to hide from law enforcement. To combat this problem, a technological solution is needed, and call-blocking technology – i.e., a 'spam filter' for the phone – is an integral part of that technological solution."
It's not clear when the FCC will make its ruling.
Robocalls are only part of the problem. Many telemarketing calls are made by real humans who place calls to people on the "do not call list." Last year, the FTC logged 3.2 million complaints from people who said they were called by telemarketers despite being on that list. Since 2003, the commission received a total of 22 million complaints about unauthorized telemarketing calls.
Meanwhile, there is something you can do. Advocacy group Consumers Union posted a petition to demand that carriers provide free tools to landline customers that would block robocalls. So far, more than 200,000 people signed it, according to Christina Tetreault, a Consumers Union staff attorney.
"Blocking software would give consumers a choice," she says. There are applications that block marketing calls made to VoIP phones, but it's not clear if there's anything out there that will do the same for landlines.
"The carriers are technology companies, they can certainly develop an application that would work," Tetreault says.
Will the carriers listen? That depends on how much pressure consumers put on them and the FCC. Remember, net neutrality looked stone cold dead until millions of consumers flooded the FCC and the White House with comments. That pressure eventually led to real change.