(MoneyWatch) "Rachel," the recorded telemarketer working for the pseudonymous "Card Services," is an outlaw. A 2009 telemarketing law banned so-called "robocalling" unless the telemarketing company first gets your written permission. But the Federal Trade Commission concedes that it has no way to find and stop her, so the agency is offering a $50,000 reward for anyone who can.
Why is she so wily? There's no one Rachel. Instead, her recorded voice floats in the technological "cloud" that also holds music for your iPhone and your Netflix videos. Her recorded message can be downloaded by any cyber-crook who wants to find a chump, explains Kati Daffan, staff attorney at the FTC. The numbers that appear on your caller ID when Rachel calls are "spoofed," not even giving the right area code so call recipients can narrow down the search.
In reality, dozens -- maybe even hundreds or thousands -- of con artists have used Rachel's recorded pitch as a way of finding their next victims. Current technology makes it easy, Daffan adds.
"In the past, you needed a location, banks of telephones and callers to run a telemarketing scam," she says. "Now all you need is a computer and you can download the pitch and send it out to thousands of people a day from whereever you are."
What does it get the telemarketer? If you listen through Rachel's recorded message and hit "1" on the keypad, as the message prompts, you'll be sent on to a next step. Sometimes, that next step will connect you with an offer "qualifier," -- a real person who asks whether you have at least $10,000 in debt and more than one credit card. Other times, you'll get disconnected. Either way, your name and phone number get added to a list that makes you a prime target for other companies -- most of them run by con artists -- that aim to talk you into some debt-relief service or scam.
Normally, these companies will ask for $500 or $1,000 up-front to "solve" your debt issue. But the check or money order you mail is likely to be the last you hear of the debt-relief company. Months later, you'll have the same (or worse) debts and be out the up-front payment, she says.
The FTC usually finds out, and sometimes can sue, scammers when they collect money from consumers. But consumers often don't report the scam. In other instances, they don't realize it's a con until long after the fraudster has moved on. Then, too, scams that involve a money transfer through Western Union or PayPal can sometimes get laundered fast enough to give the regulators the slip.
And the fact remains that if someone gave the con artist money, the damage has already been done. Even if they catch the crook, victims are unlikely to get their money back.
So here's what the FTC is doing to catch Rachel and all those who attempt to use her pre-recorded message to find victims: The agency is sponsoring a contest called The Robocall Challenge. The winner gets $50,000.
To be sure, winning the contest won't be easy. Taking the prize requires figuring out a technological way to stop anyone who uses robocalls, but without disrupting real communications. The solution must be presented by either an individual or a small company with less than 10 employees. Entries must be submitted by Jan. 17, 2013.
That said, the FTC is willing to provide participants with as much information as they can to help find a fix. The agency is holding an October 25 webcast to answer questions and has both details about the contest and frequently asked questions on its website.
For more information about how robocalling works and how to enter the contest, go to Ftc.gov/robocalls.