Kelly McCormack of South Portland is annoyed at the increasing number of robocalls she gets on her phone, from “Heather from account services.” Robocall volume in Maine peaks in the summer, and many Mainers already are receiving multiple calls per day. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

With summer on the way, Mainers can look forward to sunny days at the beach, throngs of tourists and an increase in annoying, automated “robocalls.”

Robocall volume in Maine peaks in the summer and tapers off in the winter, according to YouMail Inc., a California-based communications technology firm that estimates the monthly robocall volume in the United States. Robocalls to Maine’s 207 area code peaked at 4.9 million calls for August 2016, according to YouMail.

This year, robocalls in Maine are on the rise again, from a low of 3.3 million calls in February to 4.4 million calls in April, indicating that this year’s summer peak could be even higher than in 2016.

Some Maine residents said they already are receiving multiple robocalls per day, despite their efforts to stop the calls by not answering the phone or by telling the callers to delete their number.

Regulators said they are fighting a never-ending battle to stop robocalls at the source, but consumers can take certain steps to reduce the number of calls they receive.

With very few exceptions, such as debt-collection attempts, unsolicited robocalls are illegal, according to Mitchell Katz, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C.

But that hasn’t stopped disreputable businesses and scammers from making billions of robocalls to U.S. residents every year.

Robocalls have spiked because technology has made them easier and cheaper, the FTC said. Companies are using autodialers that can send out thousands of phone calls every minute for a miniscule cost.

The companies that use autodialers don’t bother to screen for numbers on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry, because robocalls are illegal whether or not the number being called is in the registry.

Katz said the FTC fights a constant battle to identify and shut down robocalling operations.

“The last enforcement action we took shut down a company that made over a billion robocalls,” he said.

But it’s like playing whack-a-mole. Shut one down, and another one pops up.

Nationally, robocall volume increased for the second consecutive month in April to 2.5 billion calls, a pace of roughly 965 robocalls placed every second on average during the month, according to YouMail, which offers a service to block robocalls.

Average daily robocall volume increased to 83.3 million calls in April, a 5.2 percent increase over the daily average for March.

“Despite recent concerted efforts to address this problem by regulators and phone carriers, it’s clear that the robocallers continue to perpetuate their unwanted assault on the American public,” said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail.

“Preventing robocalls is extremely challenging because the current technology makes it quite easy and inexpensive to spoof real phone lines and crank out millions of unwanted calls.”

The FTC doesn’t specifically track robocall complaints, but it does track complaints about unsolicited sales and marketing calls from people on the Do Not Call Registry.

CONSUMERS ARE EXASPERATED

In 2016, the FTC received 5.3 million complaints, up from 3.6 million complaints in 2015. In 2014, it received 3.2 million complaints, a decline from complaints received the previous two years – 3.7 million in 2013 and 3.8 million in 2012.

Also, the number of phone numbers in the Do Not Call Registry has increased. There were 226 million phone numbers in the registry in 2016, up from 222.8 million in 2015, 217.9 million in 2014 and 213.4 million in 2013.

Several Maine residents told the Portland Press Herald that they have been hounded by robocalls recently.

Kelly McCormack of South Portland said she has been receiving an average of four or five robocalls per day. Each call comes up as being from a different phone number, but the caller is always the same, a recorded voice identifying itself as “Heather from account services,” promising to lower the interest rate on McCormack’s credit card.

“I am nearly at my wits’ end with these,” McCormack said. “I started blocking the numbers on my iPhone, and then one day I let the message play out to see if I could reach an actual person. I did and it was a man with a thick accent and I told him to stop calling me. He said OK and quickly hung up. Then I received a call a little while later.”

McCormack said that based on her phone’s digital call log, she has received more than 50 robocalls from 30 phone numbers over the past few weeks.

The “Heather from account services” robocall has been around for at least a decade, despite multiple attempts by regulators to shut it down. The scammers try to obtain the victim’s credit card information and then charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to the card for their bogus interest rate reduction service.

“These calls are always from various states – there’s no rhyme or reason to when they call me,” McCormack said. “I’m fed up. They even come to our phones at work.”

Leslie Saba of Westbrook said she also has noticed an increase in robocalls lately, both to her personal and business mobile numbers. The callers have gotten more clever recently, Saba said, spoofing both the Maine area code and a local exchange in order to fool her into thinking it’s a local call.

“By using a local area (code) and exchange, I’m more inclined to pick up,” she said.

Katie Feliciano of Hallowell said Thursday that she had received three robocalls in the past 24 hours, all appearing to be from different U.S. states.

“I found it to be very odd and excessive as well,” she said. “I have since blocked the numbers, but I know that doesn’t always eliminate the issue.

BEST BET IS NOT TO ENGAGE

Katz said the best way to reduce the number of robocalls you receive is not to interact with them. If you do answer one by accident, hang up immediately.

By interacting with a robocall, whether it’s to chew out the live person who eventually comes on the line or to demand that your number be removed, you’re most likely increasing the chance of another call.

While the FTC recommends that consumers add their phone numbers to the national Do Not Call Registry, Katz said it most likely won’t stop robocalls. But at least you’ll know without a doubt that the company calling you is disreputable, he said.

The Federal Communications Commission has been talking about efforts to work more closely with phone carriers to block robocalls at the source, and there also are private services such as YouMail, Nomorobo, RoboKiller and Truecaller that promise to help block robocalls for their customers.

Beyond that, the best thing to do is to file a complaint to aid the FTC in its efforts to shut down individual robocalling operations, Katz said.

“You can certainly file a complaint with the FTC every time you receive a robocall,” he said.

Despite the FTC’s advice, some Mainers said they get a feeling of satisfaction from turning the tables on the scammers by annoying them or wasting their time.

“I have a new strategy for dealing with solicitation calls: Once I get an actual person on the phone, I crank (punk rock band) Sex Pistols and hold the phone to the speaker,” Edgecomb resident Alesia Norling said. “So far, none of them have made it past 10 seconds.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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