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posted: 9/20/2012 10:23 AM

Little protection from robocall scams

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Rachel is a robot. You can hang up on her.

In fact, that's the best option, even though it's hard to resist punching zero to try to yell at a live person.

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Robocalls _ those uninvited, recorded phone messages _ are in focus during election season, when voters in some districts are flooded with them.

But those pre-election robocalls are perfectly legal and cost you little more than an interrupted dinner.

In contrast, many robocallers like the ersatz "Rachel from Cardholder Services" are illegal scams that can cost you a lot. Plenty of people, faced with a recorded caller purportedly representing their bank or credit card company, are tricked into giving up personal or financial information, and some lose thousands of dollars.

There's little protection against these crimes, which the federal government acknowledges are sharply on the rise.

A federal "do not call" list includes 209 million landline and cellular numbers held by those who want to opt out of phone solicitations. But it doesn't matter much against these illegitimate callers, who can call millions of numbers in a matter of hours.

The do-not-call list's illusion of safety is a problem, as is enforcers' difficulty in keeping up with offenders' technological prowess.

Federal and state agencies have gone after major companies operating robocall scams, winning millions of dollars in fines. The Federal Communications Commission strengthened its rules this year, and the Federal Trade Commission will meet with representatives of the telecommunications industry, law enforcement and others Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C., on the problem.

We hope they'll come up with a way to better protect people from the kind of theft that's all the more insidious because it hits them in their homes.

Until then, what can you do? Hang up if you get a robocall, even if the voice demands you push 1 or 0 to "unlock your credit card" or speak to a person. Pushing any button signals your number has a live person behind it, and then you're in for more calls.

If you realize you've given out information that could lead to financial or identity theft, call the police. Don't let embarrassment keep you silent.

The FTC stresses the importance of reporting robocalls at https://complaints.donotcall.gov/. And if you get repeated calls from one number, you can ask if your phone provider will block those calls. Some will, often for a fee.

Steps like these won't stop political robocalls, which aren't bound by the do-not-call list. As for Rachel, the federal government and several states are on to her and have fined the companies behind her voice millions of dollars. But there's still skepticism about whether she's gone for good -- so don't forget the strategy to just hang up.

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