Off the Hook: Candidates Have Your Number

customer service telemarketing telephone phone CBS/AP

CBS News Investigative Producer Laura Strickler wrote this story for CBSNews.com.

Marty Stone is getting ready to call you.

Stone runs a Democratic calling firm in Washington D.C. and he can dial a million American voters in fifteen minutes. If you're a registered voter then chances are political firms like Stone's Phones can get your home number.

Stone says all legitimate automated calls - known as robocalls - indicate who paid for the call, "If they're complying with federal law then there would be fingerprints," he said. But finding out who paid for those political calls when the caller doesn't want you to know is almost impossible, "In eight years of doing this I have never been able to find someone identified," he said.

According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) all campaign communications that reach more than 500 people must identify who paid for it.

Robocalls are increasingly common. During the primary season, voters were more likely to receive a robocall than any other type of campaign communication, according to the Pew Research Center.

"What we worry about is the guy in his basement who has some kind of voice programming who can crank this out from his laptop. They sell it for cheap or for free and that's the stuff that needs to be taken out," says Aris McMahon of the GOP calling firm Advantage, Inc. in Northern Virginia.

If campaigns hire a group to make political calls, the campaign is supposed to record it on their FEC filings. But McMahon says candidates can scrub their filings hiding contracts with sub-sub contractors.

And the practice is cheap from 2 to 8 cents per automated call. This means candidates can call 800,000 people for as little as $16,000 which can be a bargain for candidates who can't afford paid television advertising or for those who want to reach a very targeted group with a key message.

The smear campaign against Senator John McCain (R-AZ) during the 2000 primary season was helped by another type of political calling known as push polls. That's when a caller asks questions about a candidate based on a false premise. For example, phone calls in South Carolina asked potential voters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child which was not true. The financier of the calls was never nailed down. Rick Davis who ran McCain's campaign in 2000 and runs it today called the South Carolina attacks on his candidate, "Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign."

"More and more people are getting called and more and more candidates up and down the ballot are using them," says Shaun Dakin who runs www.stoppoliticalcalls.org. "And there is no evidence to show they are effective." Dakin started a "National Political Do Not Call Registry" that now has 55,000 phone numbers but campaigns need to sign up with Dakin to get the do not call list and only six have registered. Neither presidential candidate has signed up.

Some callers have cleverly capitalized on public hatred of telemarketers. The caller pretends to be representing the opposing candidate and calls voters repeatedly or makes one well-placed automated call at 3 in the morning. But Stone is doubtful, "I don't think you gain anything by doing this, it's the equivalent of pulling up the yard signs of your opponent."

If a voter wants to opt out of political calls this political season, it might be too late. The Federal Trade Commission has no control over political calls so the Do Not Call Registry will not work. And while cell phones are illegal for all telemarketers, if a voter lists their cell phone number on their voter registration form, they might be hearing from candidates in a few short weeks.

By Laura Strickler
  • CBSNews

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