Robocalling is thriving -- and it's not only fly-by-night companies that are pressing your digits.
Some major corporations have quietly added clauses to their terms of service that allow them to market or solicit their customers with promotional emails, text messages and phone calls, a trend that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is cracking down on. In the most recent cases, the FCC has cited ride-sharing company Lyft and the First National Bank for violating a law that protects consumers against unwanted robocalls and texts.
In both cases, Lyft and the First National Bank included language in their terms of service that, at least on the face of it, would give them the right to send marketing messages to customers via text or phone call.
The problem, however, is that the law prohibits companies from forcing consumers to receive robocalls in exchange for purchasing a good or service. Robocalls -- and robo-texts -- are a growing annoyance to consumers, with complaints on the rise despite the creation of the Do Not Call list over a decade ago.
In Lyft's case, according to the FCC, its terms of service included a clause giving it the right to market to customers via robocall, email and text. If consumers didn't agree to the terms, they couldn't use Lyft's app.
"The Lyft Terms of Service agreement is a blanket agreement -- that is, an agreement that Lyft requires all consumers to affirm in order to obtain service, but that does not allow any opportunity for consumers to provide input on the terms," according to the FCC citation.
Even though the Lyft terms of service said consumers could opt out of those messages, the FCC said it found that the car service doesn't actually provide "unsubscribe options" for consumers. Instead, a search in Lyft's help section uncovered instructions for how to opt out of text messages, but none on how to avoid phone calls.
In an email to CBS MoneyWatch, Lyft said it hadn't been using promotional texts to spam customers, but it noted that it has updated its terms of service "in order to be as transparent as possible with consumers." The terms now include information about how to opt out of marketing messages.
Paypal (PYPL) ended up in hot water earlier this year after it changed its terms of service to allow "auto-dialed or prerecorded calls or text messages," a tweak that the Los Angeles Times' David Lazarus called "messed up on a number of levels." The company said it might use the option to collect debts, advertise to or survey their customers. After an outcry, Paypal backed down.
"Consumers absolutely do not want to get any marketing phone calls," said Aaron Foss, the founder of Nomorobo, a company that offers a free service for blocking robocalls and telemarketers. However, customers are willing to receive what Foss called "legal robocalls." He added, "Doctor's appointment reminders, school closings, alerts from PayPal that your account might be hacked, a call from Lyft that you car is waiting -- those are all welcome by consumers."
Consumers are tired of robocalls, spam email and the rising tide of marketing texts, given what sometimes seems like a losing battle against telemarketers. The number of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission rose to 3.2 million in fiscal 2014, of about six times the level a decade ago.
The bottom line? Read through terms of service provided by corporations, and if they want you to agree to unwanted marketing messages, ask for clarification and ways to opt out.