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For many Sonoma County residents, the national Do Not Call list is not living up to its name.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the registry, North Bay residents in the 707 area code filed nearly 20,000 complaints about unsolicited calls last year, more than double the number from just three years ago.

"It's just a huge invasion of privacy," said Santa Rosa resident Suzi McOmber, a former schoolteacher. "I've been on the Do Not Call list for years and as far as I can tell, it's never really made a difference. It seems like we get more (unsolicited) calls then ever."

McOmber is not alone. More complaints are coming into the FTC than ever before in the 10-year history of the Do Not Call registry. While federal officials say a big factor is the number of lines registered — 223 million nationwide as of September — they acknowledge that telemarketers and scammers are getting better at finding ways to reach consumers and hide their identities when they do.

"Technology is the double-edge sword — it helps both us and them," said Bikram Bandy, an FTC program coordinator for the Do Not Call list. "It has allowed the bad guys to make calls cheaper, to call from anywhere in the world and to disguise the caller ID. It has made it hard for us to track down where the calls come from."

Bandy also pointed to the increase in so-called "robocalls," which are made by automated computers, some to as many as millions or even billions of consumers in short bursts that may take only seconds. Robocalls have been made easier and cheaper through the use of Internet technology, which allows telemarketers to set up large operations without the cost of securing call centers or hiring lots of employees.

Robocalls from businesses are illegal, even when made to numbers that are not on the Do Not Call registry, unless the consumer has given clear prior written consent.

"Twenty years ago, there were huge costs in putting together massive dialing operations that required a lot of human capital," Bandy said. "Now you can outsource it overseas at a fraction of that cost. Even if you get a very low percentage of sales, it's still enough to overcome the initial costs."

The Do Not Call List was launched in 2003 and revised in 2008. It allows consumers to remove their home and cell numbers from sales lists by registering (www.donotcall.gov) or phoning a toll-free number, 888-382-1222. Initially, there was a five-year limit to registrations but that was removed in 2008, and now they are permanent unless removed by a consumer or a number is found to be no longer active.

While the Do Not Call list doesn't ban political calls or those from certain charities, companies are not allowed to call consumers unless they are given clear permission to do so, or they have engaged recently with them.

Although registrations have leveled off in recent years, the list has been widely popular with consumers. Some 25 million numbers are registered in California, the most in the nation, though the registrations per population lags behind other states.

About a third of the 3.24 million telephone numbers assigned to people and businesses in the 707 area code have been registered on the Do Not Call list.

But that doesn't mean the telemarketers are not getting through. They're just getting better at figuring out a way around the system, and so far, federal regulators are having trouble keeping up. Along with robocalling, unscrupulous telemarketers are hiding or "spoofing" their numbers in order to prevent consumers — and regulators — from tracking them down.

The result has been frustrating for many local residents.

"A day or so ago I got a call from someone saying they were from Microsoft technical support," said Ukiah retiree Joanie Stevens, who herself is a former phone company employee. "I don't even use Microsoft — I use Apple. But it doesn't matter if you tell them to take you off your list. They just don't let up."

Stevens said she tried keeping a detailed log of the calls she received over the past couple of years, including recording the phone numbers and the reasons they said they were calling. She filed complaints with the FTC and even did online searches to see if she could pinpoint the companies who were calling, but still the calls persist. She was among many local residents interviewed by The Press Democrat who made concerted efforts to end the calls.

McOmber said she got so frustrated that about a year ago, while she was home recovering from an illness, she spent a week trying to get the calls to stop.

"For about two weeks, I filed complaint after complaint after complaint after complaint for every number that called," she said. "And it never diminished the calls whatsoever."

Santa Rosa resident Joel Evans-Fudem, a senior office assistant for Sonoma County, says he had made several complaints to the FTC about the same series of calls he has been receiving on his cellphone once a week for months.

"I will get 10 calls from a couple of different phone numbers," he said. "They come in every minute for about 10 minutes and then they stop. When I answer, it's just a loud fax machine beep."

FTC officials say they feel consumers' pain, arguing they have made inroads by taking the worst offenders to court and winning civil penalties and fines, some of which they say has been returned to scammed consumers. Officials were clear to differentiate between legal and illegal callers, noting that even telemarketers who violate the terms of the Do Not Call list may not also be trying to scam customers.

But they hope the real progress will come from new technologies developed to confront the violators head on.

Two approaches that have proved successful were developed by private companies through programs sponsored by the FTC. One, Nomorobo, was developed for landlines and is offered as a feature by some local phone providers like Comcast which makes it available via its Xfinity voice service. The second, PrivacyStar, is a cellphone app and website that tracks calls and allows consumers to file complaints to the government.

Both companies employ technology to essentially compile databases of known telemarketers and, in some cases, cut the calls off before they even ring on a customer's phone. Much of the data they collect is shared with the federal government, which improves the ability to identify the illegal callers.

"These scammers and telemarketers are fly-by-night operations. By the time you get to them, they've moved on or changed their numbers," said PrivacyStar spokesman Jonathan Sasse. "The main thing we think is critical is not just letting consumers know who is calling but what kind of call it is."

He said PrivacyStar is in the process of a redesign to its website (www.privacystar.com) that will give consumers access to a free searchable database so they can look up numbers themselves.

Both private and public officials said data collection is the key to winning the war against unscrupulous telemarketers, and they encourage consumers to report unwanted calls. Information, they said, is power.

"The complaint data is huge for us in terms of enforcement," said the FTC's Bandy, adding the data they receive is analyzed once a month to try to pinpoint the latest trends and violators. "Customer complaints are our eyes and ears to understanding the most recent scams and scammers."

Some companies are already doing it for you. Santa Rosa-based Sonic.net, which provides bundled Internet and phone service in Sonoma County, has been building a database of known telemarketing callers. The feature, which is called Spam Call Blocking, is optional.

"We identify when large numbers of calls are coming in from one place and try to determine if they are engaged in fraud or telemarketing. We continually refine and analyze the data and what that allows us to do is block certain types of calls from getting through," Sonic co-founder and CEO Dane Jasper said.

Any relief would be cheered by local residents.

"My experience is of a poor layperson that doesn't know how to fix the problem and is plagued every day by them," McOmber said. "If there is any other way to limit these calls, I would be eternally grateful."

(You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.)

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