Oct. 12, 2012 at 7:52 AM ET
With less than 30 days until the election, the campaigns and their supporters are pulling out all the stops to bring in donations and get out the vote. One way to do that is through automated calls — those dreaded robocalls. It’s hard to know if these robocalls work, but there’s no question they annoy people.
Go to any reverse directory website and look at the comments. You can feel the anger these calls create.
“FOR GOD’S SAKE SOMEBODY STOP THEM!” wrote John Hemenway of Houston on 800notes.com, a website that lets you look up unknown phone numbers.
Hemenway told me he’s fed up with being “harassed” by the constant barrage of political robocalls.
“I’m disgusted with the whole thing,” he said. “It’s obnoxious. They’re pestering people in their homes.”
But as long as they’re made to a landline phone, political robocalls are perfectly legal under federal law.
That’s because political calls, whether delivered by a live person or a computer, are exempt from the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
(Note: some states have their own rules about robocalls that may be stricter than federal regulations.)
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a political call to a landline or a cell phone,” noted Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC’s division of marketing practices. “We don’t consider those calls to be ‘telemarketing’ because they’re not trying to sell you something.”
That means you can have your telephone number listed on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry but it won’t stop political calls of any kind. You may not like it, but that’s the law.
Robocalls to cell phones are different
The Federal Communications Commission regulates wireless communications and bases its rules on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. The FCC prohibits prerecorded voice messages and autodialed calls or text messaging to any cell phone, pager or other mobile device, unless it’s an emergency or the caller has advance written permission from the recipient.
The penalty for violating the rule is a fine of as much as $16,000 per violation.
(These FCC rules only apply to robocalls. Political text messages that are sent by an individual one at a time, and political calls to cell phones that are live and manually dialed are permitted under FCC rules.)
Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at CTIA -The Wireless Association, told me that based on what his organization hears from customers, there’s been “an uptick” in political robocalls.
“We’ve seen over the past few years that robocalls have been the single biggest driver of complaints to the FCC, and those numbers are growing,” Carpenter said. “You can argue that they’re growing for reasons other than the political season, but I think the election is a driver in that process.”
Darren Dezutter of Tacoma, Wash., has been bombarded with political robocalls and he finds them obnoxious.
“It really angers me that a political party would do this,” Dezutter said. “If you value your privacy, you don’t want to be harassed by these calls.”
Dezutter said the sheer number of robocalls to his cell phone is disturbing. He estimated he’s received about a hundred of them since this spring.
“At one point, I was called five times in one day. I wanted it to stop; it was driving me crazy,” he told me. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or Republican calling me; regardless of the party, I find these robocalls irritating, especially when they’re asking for money.”
And he noted, as have others who complain about robocalls to a wireless device, that he’s paying for these calls, which reduce his bucket of minutes.
If you have received an unwanted political robocall or text message on a wireless device, I encourage you to file a complaint with the FCC.