By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/18/2009 7:27:01 AM ET 2009-06-18T11:27:01

Despite strong “Do Not Call” laws in both countries, telephones across the U.S. and Canada are ringing at all hours of the day and night with annoying and deceptive robocalls. These automated, prerecorded telemarketing calls promise to save you thousands of dollars by lowering the interest rates on your credit cards.

If you haven’t received one of these robocalls, consider yourself lucky. Chances are you will.

“Some of the companies making these calls rip off consumers by charging large upfront fees to negotiate lower interest rate with their credit card companies,” says Alison Southwick with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “In many cases that ‘negotiation’ is nothing more than calling the bank’s customer service number and asking for a better rate.”

The recorded messages generally say something like: “There are no problems currently with your account; however it is urgent that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rates to as little as 6.9 percent.”

The recorded message does not give the name of the company calling. It often says it’s from “card services” or “card holder services.” Many of the people who’ve complained to the BBB say they believe the message was designed to trick them into thinking it was a call from their credit card company.

The BBB says some of these robocalls are coming from three companies: CSTR Solutionsand Genesis Capital Managementboth based in Orlando, Fla. and Mutual Consolidated Savingsin Tacoma, Wash. The BBB has received hundreds of complaints about these firms. Each has an “F” rating with the bureau.

I tried contacting all three companies. I could not find a working number for CSTR Solutions in Orlando. My messages to Mutual Consolidated Savings in Tacoma were never returned.

David Allen, the owner of Genesis Capital in Orlando, said he was “quite shocked” by the BBB report. “We’re a great company that provides a tremendous service,” he told me.  Allen insists his company does not use robocalls.

It sounds so good
Patricia Poole of Mineral City, Ohio, is almost 70 and she does not want to leave her kids saddled with her credit card debt. So the automated call from Mutual Consolidated Savings sounded mighty appealing.

The company promised to work with Poole’s creditors to get her interest rates lowered or eliminated. All of her credit cards would be paid off in about 4 years. “If we can’t do that,” the operator told her, “we’ll give you your money back.” So Poole paid the one-time fee of $695.

That’s the last she heard from them. “They did nothing for me,” she says.

Poole called and called to demand her money back. Finally, the company agreed to a partial refund of $200. The money never came. The BBB says these companies rarely honor their money-back guarantee.

Poole decided to see what she could do on her own. She called her bank and told them she was “desperate” and they agreed to work with her. They temporarily lowered the interest rate on her card from around 22 percent to just 8 percent.

Looking back, Poole realizes she made a big mistake. “But at the time they made it sound so easy,” she remembers.  “Now when I get these calls I hang up.”

She advises others to do the same.

More than annoying
Based on the complaints, many of these robocalls are illegal, because they are going to phone numbers registered on either the U.S. or Canadian “Do Not Call” lists. Many of the calls also violate telemarketing rules in both countries by coming late at night.

Steve Clark of Bowling Green, Ky., got one of these robocalls at 3:30 a.m. “It was upsetting,” he tells me. “I was so concerned about it that I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

Melissa Allen of South Bend, Ind., was bombarded with these robocalls for weeks even though she doesn’t have a credit card. The times she was able to reach a live operator they wouldn’t give her any information. When she asked for the calls to stop, they hung on her.

“It crazy,” she says, “crazy and annoying.”

Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, says his agency is “well aware of these credit card rate reduction calls.” The FTC never comments on possible investigations. But in an e-mail to me Leibowitz wrote, “We intend to enforce the law.”

Last month, the FTC shut down a huge telemarketing operation that ignored the “Do Not Call” list. They used computerized calls to trick people into buying costly and often unnecessary extended car warranties. Because of that legal action, those obnoxious car warranty calls have dropped dramatically.

The bottom line
You should never give out personal information, such as your credit card or bank account numbers, to an unknown caller. You have no idea who’s really on the other end of the line. Chances are it’s a crook.

Remember, you don’t need to pay anyone to lower your credit card interest rates. You can do it yourself – for free – and you are just as likely to be successful.

I do want to encourage you to do this: Complain!

If you received one of the calls and your phone is on the “Do Not Call” list, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

You should also file a complaint with both the FTC and your state attorney general or consumer protection office if you fell for the pitch and paid for a service you never received.

These con artists need to be shut down, their automated dialers turned off and their profits confiscated.

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