Susan Tompor, USA TODAY
I've heard from one angry senior after another who wants medical-alert scam robocalls to stop. The calls have become so pervasive one medical-alert company placed full-page ads this month in major newspapers warning seniors not to fall for the con.
I wrote about this particularly annoying scam in early June, and I've been taken aback by how many seniors are telling me they've simply been deluged.
Many times, the retirees said they're hearing from someone named "John." He keeps talking, won't shut up and will not let them talk. John is a very sophisticated but annoying recording.
"These are prerecorded calls that are cleverly done," said Will Maxson, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer and program manager of the agency's "Do Not Call" enforcement.
The automated voice implies that a doctor or relative signed the consumer up for a medical-alert system. And it's all free. Authorities said that, in some cases, after consumers press a button to accept the offer, they quickly receive another call asking for personal information, including credit card numbers.
This might be con artists trying to get bank or credit card information or a Social Security number to use in ID theft. Or it's a way to pressure seniors into paying for equipment or services.
The Medical Alert System scam is in full swing in Michigan, according to the state Attorney General's office, as well as in other states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Wisconsin and Kentucky.
Ruth Streeter, who lives in Virginia, told me by e-mail that she's disrupted by them daily. "And I do mean daily," she said.
It's so annoying that one company, MedicalAlert, took out full-page ads in late June in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News and also in newspapers in Cleveland, Miami and New York.
Mark Leighton, CEO of MedicalAlert's parent ConnectAmerica, said his company is not making the calls, "Absolutely not."
He said his company has been receiving about 500 calls a week since early April from upset customers and seniors. Consumers demanded to know why the company was calling them. "Some people called crying, saying, 'I just gave out my credit card number,'" Leighton said.
Leighton said his company markets its product on TV and in print ads and through the CVS Pharmacy, not by phone calls. Dan Gilbert's RockBridge Equity Partners bought a majority interest in ConnectAmerica in 2010, Leighton said.
The full-page ads include tips such as: "NEVER sign blank Medicare insurance forms" and "Be suspect of ANY unrequested telephone solicitation claiming to be affiliated with Medicare, MedicalAlert, ConnectAmerica or any medical-alarm brand."
How to stop the calls
It's one thing to be warned about a potential scam. But seniors ask repeatedly: How do you get the calls to stop?
I wish I had some good news for you. I wish I could say: Psst, here's the number to call, and these regulators will put a stop to the crazies once and for all.
Federal and state regulators say that, for now, automated robocalling technology and the anonymity it can provide give criminals the upper hand. In fact, bad people often have the upper hand in some situations.
But you don't have to cooperate; hang up.
We all get recorded calls at some point, pitches for extended automobile warranties, chances to lower your electric bill. Remember, Rachel at cardholder services? That was a popular robocall several months ago.
Some strategies do exist for fighting back. But I'll warn you: The calls won't stop immediately, and it could be some time before regulators are able to get results. Regulators just don't have a quick fix here.
Try not to answer, if you can screen the calls using caller ID.
If you do answer, never attempt to communicate. with that so-called live operator.
Yes, it's tempting to tell that annoying guy who keeps calling to go soak his head in a dirty toilet, as a dear high school friend of mine used to say. But don't do it.
Experts said some robocalls are lead generators, meaning that the caller is paid to find out whether the number is "live." Pressing a button could generate more calls.
And, yes, of course, you can complain.
That doesn't mean the calls won't interrupt your favorite TV show every once in a while. And, that doesn't make it right or fair. But it's reality for pretty much everyone right now.
How to outsmart "John"
If you think robocalls are out of control, you're correct. The Federal Trade Commission said it's getting more consumer complaints than ever because companies now can tap into the Internet to send out thousands of phone calls every minute at an incredibly low cost.
The FTC's Maxon said the agency has stopped "billions of robocalls" the past few years regarding fraudulent credit card services, home security and so-called auto warranty protection.
But the cases are challenging. Robocallers can fake the caller ID information that you see on your phone. The fake telemarketer may even make it seem like this is a call from your bank or other legitimate business.
Leighton said his company suspects that the calls are from some offshore outfits and hard for regulators to stop. "There is action being taken, but I don't think it's an overnight process to be able to stop these people," he added.
The calls could be coming from overseas and hard to detect because Internet technology enables callers to hide where the call originates.
Maxson said robocalls are an enforcement priority for the commission, and complaints can help detect patterns.
A consumer can write down the telephone number that appears on the caller ID and report it to the FTC, he advises.
Even though no one answers if you try to call back, even when the number appears to be a locally made call. But the FTC has ways to trace some spoofed calls if a large number of complaints are reported, Maxson said. "We can group complaints together to figure out who is causing the most harm."
Signing up for the "Do Not Call" list also helps and can help the FTC in enforcement actions, Maxson said.
Many consumers who complained about the medical-alert scam told me they are already on the "Do Not Call" list.
Jean Pugliese, 74, of Shelby Township, said she had been getting the medical-alert calls maybe two or three times a day at one point.
"It's kind of sad when seniors are being targeted," she said.
Pugliese said she is sharp enough to know that relatives would have told her if they had bought her a medical-alert system. And she is not answering the phone any more unless she recognizes the number on her caller ID, so it seems like the calls have calmed down. But she worries about older seniors or those who face challenging illnesses.
Cynthia LeBar Kabbe, who is originally from Wyandotte but now lives in Connecticut, said she has received the medical-alert calls, as well as some calls about a computer virus and some so-called FBI alert about break-ins in her neighborhood.
In her view, the calls are most problematic for people seniors who are 80 years old or older and probably more trusting than the general population. Some seniors may be more likely to think the call is legitimate.
"For me, it is exasperating to receive the same calls over and over," she said.