FTC vs. robocallers: One step forward, one back

The Federal Trade Commission is winning some battles in its long-fought war with illegal robocallers, but it's still losing the war.

In testimony to Congress on Wednesday, Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC's division of marketing practices, outlined progress in the agency's eight-year battle against illegal computer-dialed calls that peddle everything from cable to cons. The progress has been significant.

The agency has brought suit against 144 corporations and 102 individuals, winning $292 million in the process. And it has managed to cobble together support from a wide array of U.S. and international regulators ranging from U.S. Postal inspectors and attorneys general to British and Canadian telecom authorities, who are attacking robocalling on dozens of individual fronts.

But at the same time, robocalling complaints have more than doubled since just the beginning of the year. The FTC fielded 330,264 complaints about illegal robocalls in January. By August, the monthly complaint total had soared to $604,785. The agency estimates that billions of illegal computer-generated calls are being made each year.

The main culprit in the rise of illegal robocalls is technology, Greisman told Congress. Until recently, launching a massive telemarketing campaign required costly hardware and labor. Today inexpensive auto-dialers and internet protocol dialing have eliminated most of the necessary expense and expertise. Crooks can now generate billions of computer-dialed calls for less than a penny a minute.

Even Greisman's discussion about the agency's victories illustrated the difficulty of the battle. 

The FTC's biggest win to date was a $280 million judgement against Dish Network (DISH) last June. This suit launched in 2009, when the Department of Justice bought action on the FTC's behalf, in conjunction with the states of California, Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio. They jointly alleged that Dish violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and various state "do not call" laws 66 million times individually and through affiliated companies.

Dish, however, said it disagreed with the court and will appeal the ruling. 

"The amounts awarded in this case radically and unjustly exceed, by orders of magnitude, those found in the settlements in similar actions, notably against DirecTV, Comcast and Caribbean Cruise Lines," the company said in a statement. Dish added that it was being held responsible for "independent third-parties, including in circumstances where such third-parties intentionally hid their telemarketing efforts from Dish."

However, technology may also help provide a solution to the still booming robocall problem.

Among the more interesting methods the FTC has used to attack robocalling are "public challenges." In late 2012, flummoxed by its inability to ban the calls, the FTC kicked off its first Robocall Challenge, which invited the public to come up with ways to block the calls. One of the winners, NomoRobo, came out with a free product less than six months later that consumers can use to block these calls on both land lines and now also on iPhones.

Three subsequent challenges have continued to add sophistication to call-blocking software and have allowed the agency to develop industry partnerships that have both shed light on the issue and brought a coalition of industry experts together to help find solutions through a Robocall Strike Force.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission, which is a member of this strike force, is in the process of changing telecommunications rules in a way that would make it easier for carriers to block the calls before they hit the consumer's phone.

Consumers, too, have tools. NomoRobo, Hiya and TrueCaller offer free software that should block the vast majority of robocall scams.

And if you have registered with the Do Not Call Registry -- or simply told a legitimate company that you want to be taken off its calling list -- you can also legally enforce your wishes by taking the company to small claims court. 

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 gives consumers a "personal right of action" to sue any company that has called more than once in a 12-month period, after they've been notified that you're on the Do Not Call list and/or don't wish to be contacted. You will need to write down or record the calls and then file a small claims action to enforce the law. But if you win, you'll be well-compensated for your time. 

This act allows you to recover the greater of any monetary loss you've suffered or up to $500 in damages for each violation. So if the telemarketer called five times after you told it not to, you could win as much as $2,500.