FTC escalates anti-robocall campaign – takes out 5 mass callers

FTC cases follow agency’s Robocall Challenge offering $50,000 for private high-tech fix for robocall problem

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Just two weeks after it challenged the public to come up with a better technological way to stop incessant robocalling, the Federal Trade Commission pulled the plug on  five mass calling companies it said were allegedly responsible for millions of illegal pre-recorded calls from "Rachel" and others from "Cardholder Services."    

The FTC said it gets more than 200,000 complaints each month about telemarketing robocalls, including calls from "Rachel" that pitch consumers with a supposedly easy way to save money by reducing their credit card interest rates.  After collecting an up-front fee, however, the FTC believes that the companies do little if anything to fulfill their promises.

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"At the FTC, Rachel from Cardholder Services is public enemy number one," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz at the announcement of the cases. 

The five complaints announced today were filed in courts from Arizona to Florida against the following companies: 1) Treasure Your Success, 2) Ambrosia Web Design, 3) A+ Financial Center, LLC, 4) The Green Savers, and 5) Key One Solutions, LLC.  Each complaint alleges, among other things, that the defendants violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that consumers who buy their services will have their credit card interest rates reduced substantially and  will save thousands of dollars as a result of lowered credit card interest rates.

In the cases, the FTC alleges that the defendants place automated calls to consumers, saying they have an "important message" regarding an opportunity to reduce high credit card interest rates.  Consumers are urged to "press 1" to connect with a live representative, or "press 2" to discontinue getting such calls.  Consumers who press 1 are connected to live telemarketers.  Most consumers have no way to screen the calls using Caller ID, as the incoming number allegedly is often "spoofed," or displayed as a false number.  In many cases, the name displayed on the Caller ID is so generic, such as "Card Services," that it provides little information about who is calling, the FTC stated.

According to the FTC, consumers who reach a live telemarketer are then pitched allegedly deceptive offers to have their credit card interest rates substantially reduced, sometimes to as low as 6.9 or even zero percent.  The telemarketers allegedly guarantee that lowering card interest rates will save the consumers thousands of dollars in finance charges in a short period of time and will allow them to pay off the balances more quickly.  Some telemarketers allegedly claim that consumers will save at least $2,500 in finance charges and will be able to pay off their balances two to three times faster, without increasing their monthly payments.

After consumers have been "approved" for the program, according to the FTC, the telemarketer informs them that there is an up-front fee, typically ranging from several hundred dollars to nearly $3,000.  To convince them to pay the fee, telemarketers often say that it will be more than offset by the money the consumer will save through the program.  In some cases, the FTC alleges that consumers' credit cards were charged even if they did not agree to pay for the service.  In other cases, the defendants allegedly do not disclose a fee at all, or claim there will be no fee, the FTC stated.

The companies allegedly often claim to have a no-risk guarantee, saying that if they don't provide consumers with the promised rate reductions and finance charge savings, they will refund the fee.  However, consumers who later complain to the companies find it difficult, if not impossible, to get their money back. After consumers pay the up-front fee, the FTC alleges, they typically find that the companies do little or nothing to lower their credit card interest rates.  The only thing that some companies do, according to the FTC, is to initiate three-way calls with consumers' credit card issuers and orally request a rate reduction, a request that consumers could make on their own and that invariably is denied. 

While most robocalls have been banned since 2009, the FTC has seen the problems escalate over the past year.  Just last month it announced the Robocall Challenge offering $50,000 to anyone who can create what the agency calls "an innovative way to block that will block illegal commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones."

As part of the challenge, the FTC said it would provide participants with data on de-identified consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012.  Challenge participants interested in this data will receive periodic updates with contemporary data through December 31, 2012. The complaint data will include: date of call; approximate time of call; reported caller name; first seven digits of reported caller phone number; and consumer area code.

The FTC said it has been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. However, current technology still lets shady telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information, the FTC said.

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