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.