Ring Cycle

We’re sorry, but Greg Dawson can’t take your call. He’s been detained by telemarketers.

In 1998, Florida was the first state to adopt a Do Not Call list, six years before the debut of the federal Do Not Call registry. And not a minute too soon.

The ceaseless barrage of obnoxious telemarketing calls to our home had become unbearable, shattering the sweet harmony of our family dinner hour. We put our number—a landline phone—on the list and soon the barrage subsided to a trickle.

It was a miracle! Problem solved!

Hold the phone for a reality check.

One day this past summer when my wife, Candy, and I were out of state her iPhone rang. Caller ID said the caller was… Candy Dawson. Worried that someone was calling from the landline in our empty house in Orlando, Candy answered—and got an earful of robocall. Checking closer, she found the call had come to her iPhone from her iPhone—an illusion worthy of David Copperfield, creepy as a Hitchcock film.

Problem not solved after all. If anything, problem worse than ever. The diabolical genius of telemarketers never sleeps, continually hatching new shape-shifting gremlins for bypassing creaky DNC lists. Candy was a victim of “spoofing,” a Trojan horse tactic by which a fraudster appears on caller ID disguised as the recipient’s name or number.

I called a 407 number that appeared on our caller ID and got a woman who said she had 600 calls after a telemarketer spoofed her number to call other numbers.

So, more than a decade after the early success of the Florida DNC list gave us false hope of permanent peace and quiet, the realization has sunk in that telemarketers, like cockroaches, will always be with us—that you can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

All our numbers, wireless and landline, are on the federal and Florida DNC lists. Yet we still get half a dozen calls a day—some with area codes, others showing up as “toll-free,’’ “unknown name’’ or “private caller”—and a growing number of texts like this one on Candy’s iPhone: “Hi, this is Mary. I spot a warehouse sale in LouisVuittonSpecials.com.” (In July, Florida added texts to its DNC statute.)

Some fraudsters are brazen. A neighbor got a call from a man who claimed to be an IRS rep. He said there was a case against her and threatened to send police to her home in 30 minutes if she didn’t provide personal information. Candy got a similar call on her iPhone. I Googled the number and found it’s a widespread IRS scam.

None of this is to say that DNC lists are pointless. It’s to say they can provide only a measure of protection, like sunblock in the Sahara or bug repellent in the Amazon.

“The list has had an effect on those companies egregiously violating the law—some have been shut down,” says Erin Gillespie, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Unfortunately, Florida is home to many scams. I don’t see the scams decreasing.”

Yes, it’s deflating when the agency running the Florida DNC list seems to wave the white flag, but don’t let that stop you from registering. It’s quick and easy by phone (1-800-435-7352) or online (fldnc.com). You can join the federal registry at donotcall.gov or 1-888-382-1222. Experts say you should be on both. Both are free.

Some fun facts about the DNC lists:

Charities, non-profit organizations and politicians are exempt. In 2007 a citizens group asked politicians to take a “Do Not Call Pledge.” Since then, only 50 pols, state and national, have done so. That explains why no one runs for office pledging to crack down on nuisance callers—like themselves.

The state launches an investigation if it gets three DNC complaints against a company within a month. You can report unwanted calls to 1-800-HELP-FLA. Last fiscal year the state received 19,106 complaints and conducted 120 investigations resulting in total fines of $267,100.

Florida’s DNC list has about 675, 000 numbers. That sounds like a lot until you consider there are roughly 23 million phones (18.5 million of them wireless) in the state. That means only 3 percent of all numbers are on the DNC list. To telemarketers and scammers, it means Florida remains a happy hunting ground.

Enforcement would be better if more complainers put their numbers on the list. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam waived the $10 fee to register two years ago, so there’s no excuse not be on the list.

If you don’t register and don’t report violators, ask not for whom the toll-free scammer calls—he calls for the guy wearing Milk Bone shorts in a dog-eat-dog world.

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