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Feds cracking down on 'Rachel,' other illegal robocallers

She’s probably the most hated telephone salesperson in America. “Rachel” from Cardholder Services has a pleasant voice and an interesting sales pitch. Her recorded message promises to help you lower your credit card bills. People across the country are fed up with her unwanted and illegal robocalls.

“It’s annoying and frustrating. There’s no way to stop them,” said Mike Jones, a computer engineer in Fisco, Texas, who has gotten so many unwanted calls from Rachel that he’s written several blog posts about her.

Illegal robocalls are also being used to sell mortgage relief, extended car warranties, vacations and home security systems.

The Federal Trade Commission says the problem is getting worse. Despite numerous prosecutions to shut down illegal robocall operations, the number of complaints about these automated phone calls – on both land lines and cell phones – has skyrocketed in the last two years. In October 2010, the FTC received about 65,000 complaints about robocalls. By April 2012, the number had soared to 212,000.

"We are ratcheting up our efforts to stop this invasion of the consumer's privacy," said FTC Chairman Jonathan Leibowitz.

That includes a summit to be held Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C., to figure out how to combat this growing problem.

Why is it getting worse?
The FTC has gone after a dozen companies over illegal robocalls. To date, violators have paid more than $5.6 million in penalties.

Since 2010, the FTC shut down the companies responsible for more than 2.6 billion illegal telemarketing calls. And NBCNews.com has been told that more investigations are under way.

The FTC’s Will Maxson says technology has made it easier for scammers to break the law. Internet voice technology (VoIP) makes it cheaper to make more calls and disguise the phone number (a process called “spoofing”) to help avoid detection.

“So the costs have gone down and the ability to set up robocall operations anywhere in the world has increased, which has made robocalling a more profitable endeavor for fraudsters,” Maxson said.

Investigators say a sleazy telemarketer only needs a few people – maybe one out 100 – to take the bait to make money. Some of the people who respond to these robocalls lose thousands of dollars.

At its summit in October, the FTC plans to bring together law enforcement, telemarketing professionals, telecommunications experts and consumer groups to explore new ways to trace robocalls, prevent identity spoofing and stop the illegal calls from going through in the first place.

The goal is to do something other than just chase the bad guys around the world and try to shut them down one by one.

Howard Schmidt, President Barack Obama’s former cybersecurity coordinator, tells me he believes this is the right approach.

“No matter how many laws you pass, technology will make it possible for fraudsters to get around them,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to use technology to combat this misuse of technology.”

Know your rights
Nearly all telemarketing robocalls are illegal, unless you have stated in writing that you want to receive automated calls from the company in question. This ban, which took effect in 2009, applies to all phone lines, whether or not they are listed on the Do Not Call Registry.

Robocalls are legal if they are purely informational and don’t try to sell you something. This includes robocalls from political organizations and charitable groups, as well as surveys.

(ConsumerMan Alert: Some companies pretend to be conducting a survey. They ask a few generic questions and then try to sell you something. These faux surveys are banned if the goal is to make a sale.)

Most of these robocalls give you the option to push a number on your phone to be put on the company’s internal do-not-call list. Don’t do it.

If you do, it will indicate that this is a working phone number and you will wind up getting even more calls. Companies that make illegal robocalls do not maintain do-not-call lists, no matter what they say.

If you’ve been victimized by an illegal robocall or if you are getting them, file a complaint with the FTC. Write down the name of the company and the phone number that shows up on your caller ID. Investigators say even if this information is spoofed, it will help them make their case.

The FTC has a new robocalls Web page that has more information about your rights, what is being done to stop illegal robocalls, plus two new videos.

More money and business news:

NBC's Tom Costello reports that the FCC now requires telemarketers to receive written consent from customers before making robocalls.