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Robocalls are ruining more dinners every day

If you can't get through dinner without an unwanted call pitching a medical device or lower credit card rate, you have millions of fellow sufferers.

Robocalls and telemarketers are still ringing Americans' home phones off the hook more than a decade after the Federal Trade Commission created the Do Not Call registry in 2003 to put a halt to unwanted phone solicitations. That many consumers say they're still getting hassled raises a question: Does the registry really work, and why can't these annoying calls get shut down?

Despite regulations against telemarketing and robocalls, the industry of pitching unwanted products, services -- and scams -- is thriving. By one estimate, about one in four of all phone calls placed to American landlines last year were from telemarketers and robo-spammers, which may seem remarkable given that regulations such as the Do Not Call list were supposed to put a stop to such unwanted solicitations.

Do not call: How to stop annoying robocalls 00:45

At the heart of every unwanted robocall offering a lower credit card rate or a "free" medical device is a complicated mix of greed, technological advancement and laws that don't always discourage salespeople or scammers from calling. While the Do Not Call registry certainly keeps some consumers from getting pestered, the fact is that many telemarketers decide violating the law is worth the risk. Others are located overseas, where it's harder for the U.S. government to track them down and prosecute them.

"The problem is there have been a lot of illegitimate robocallers, and they are more like spammers in that they blast out millions of calls," said Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, a company that offers a free service that blocks robocalls and telemarketers. "The call centers are usually overseas. That's the new face of robocalling."

These scammers usually "don't even care about the Do Not Call list because the risk of being caught is so low and the reward of ripping off little old ladies is high. It's probably tens of millions of dollars," he added.

A quick glance at the rising number of complaints to the FTC illustrates the problem. In fiscal 2014, which ended in September, the commission received 3.2 million complaints, or almost six times the level a decade before. The number of phone numbers active on the registry rose about less than fourfold in the same period.

While the FTC is quick to note that Do Not Call registry does work, scammers, and even some legitimate companies such as Dish, simply decide to violate the law. The emergence of robocalling, which came after the creation of the registry, has made it cheaper for telemarketers and scammers to target Americans, said Bikram Bandy, the program manager for the Do Not Call registry.

"The problem has undoubtedly gotten worse over the last five years, and the reason is technology," Bandy told CBS MoneyWatch. "Voice over Internet, or VOIP, has made it cheaper for a smaller organization to make many, many calls. It's good for consumers because they pay a lot less for calls than they did years ago, but the bad guys are leveraging" the same technology.

That's also allowed cheaper calls from anywhere in the world, he added. "In some sense, the technology has allowed illegal calling to be outsourced," said Bandy. That has also made it more difficult for the FTC to track down robocallers located outside the U.S., he noted.

The complaints lodged with the FTC are likely only a small portion of the number of illegal telemarketing and robocalls Americans get, Foss said. With 190,000 customers, Nomorobo analyzed 50 million calls in 2014, and blocked 14.1 million robocalls, he said. That means about 28 percent of all calls that his company's customers got last year were phone spam.

"There are 500 million phone line in the U.S.," he noted. "If you extrapolate, there are likely billions of calls made by telemarketers. In my mind, the numbers are just staggering."

Aside from the annoyance at getting calls during dinner time -- or anytime -- consumers face a financial risk. Some robocallers are scammers looking to bilk people through cons such as phony mortgage-relief schemes and medical devices.

Did you ever get a call from "Rachel from Cardholder Services," offering a lower interest rate on your credit card? That scam convinced some consumers to pay an upfront fee for a nonexistent service. The FTC earlier this month said it was mailing out more than 16,000 refund checks totaling more than $700,000 to the scam's victims.

Given the companies' willingness to break the law and as robocalls keep rising, consumers need to add more to their arsenal than the Do Not Call registry, although Bandy noted that registering your number should be the first step. The question of how to deal with robocalling sparked the FTC to create a "robocall challenge" to spur inventors and businesspeople into coming up with ideas for fighting back, Bandy said.

The competition was inspired by the fight against email spam and the tech industry's creation of effective spam filters to screen out unwanted solicitations. Foss and his Nomorobo were among the winners in 2013, receiving a $25,000 prize.

Nomorobo works by screening calls for known roboscammers. After one call, Nomorobo answers and blacklists that call. Robocalls from verifiable sources such as schools, which often use the technology to call parents about snow days, are allowed through. Along those lines, the Do Not Call list has loopholes, given that pollsters and politicians can still call consumers, as well as businesses with which consumers have recently had a transaction.

In addition to registering for the Do Not Call list and using call-screening services like Nomorobo, consumers should also file complaints with the FTC, Bandy said. Tracking trends and violators through complaints "is a huge part of how we marshall our law enforcement resources," he added.

Lastly, be very suspicious of a company that calls you. Said Bandy: "If you are on the Do Not Call registry and receive a robocall, that call is illegal, and you should be very wary of doing business with a company that broke that law because chances are they are willing to break other laws."

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