As Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection observes National Consumer Protection Week, March 5-9, officials there said it's increasingly important for every consumer to take steps to make sure they aren't taken advantage of by scammers.
Sandy Chalmers, administrator of the Trade and Consumer Protection division, said telemarketing problems are again among the top 10 complaints from Wisconsin consumers in the past year.
"Telemarketing has been the top consumer complaint received by our agency for the past nine years in a row," noted Chalmers. "Signing up for Wisconsin's 'No Call' list is the best way to ward off intrusive calls on your home and mobile phones."
Over 600 consumers called her division with complaints about telemarketing calls even though their number was listed on the state's "No Call" list. There were also more than 500 complaints about telemarketing calls by unregistered telemarketers.
Many people - including a number of members of the state ag board - have complained about what Chalmers called the "Rachel" robo-calls.
People answer their phone and hear a recorded voice - usually "Rachel from card-holder services" who is telling them that they can get lower interest rates on their credit cards.
Chalmers cautions people to hang up or avoid picking up the phone, if that's possible - for example by using caller identification systems.
"If you press a button these scammers identify your number as a live number and they also identify you as someone who it might be possible to get money from," she added. "They'll identify you as a sucker and sell your name to other scammers."
This scam has been going on for a number of years. It is illegal under both state and federal law, but is very hard to stop because the new computer technology makes it possible for this kind of scam operation to be done from boiler rooms all over the world.
"The internet calling technology makes it difficult for us to track them down," she said.
The computer technology has also made it possible for the scammers to manipulate the caller ID systems on people's phones, making it seem like a call they would want to receive, she added.
Sometimes the scammers clone the number of a local person and use that to make their calls. That way when people see their caller ID it looks like a local person is calling them, making it more likely that they will answer the phone.
Chalmers said one woman in Wisconsin had her phone number cloned in this way and it resulted in her getting "hate calls" because people think she's "Rachel."
These kinds of scam robo-calls are increasingly going to cell phones, too. She urged people to be very careful about what information they put into personal profiles online because scammers can use this information to target them.
The Federal Trade Commissions (FTC) has successfully shut down some of these operations in Panama, Hungary and Azerbaijan. "But these 'Rachel'-type operations don't care if they're doing something illegal. They're making money," she said.
The first thing she advised state consumers to do is register with the state's "No Call" list. Then, if they get these kinds of calls, they know the callers are scammers.
"We have 447 registered telemarketers who pay their money to do things by the rules."
To sign up for the list, visit nocall.wisconsin.gov
or call toll-free 1-866-9NO-CALL (1-866-966-2255). Those registering now will have their number added to the list for June 1.
There are already over 2 million phone numbers currently registered on that list, for both land line numbers and cell phone numbers.
Informed consumers are less likely to get ripped off, Chalmers said, so her division has been working to get the word out to a variety of age groups.
There was a recent mention of Wisconsin's consumer protection efforts on the front page of the New York Times, she said, and an interview on Medicare fraud that was given to a magazine for AARP (American Association of Retired Persons.)
"One challenge we have to communicate with consumers who are 40 years and under. The first thing this group thinks of when they have a problem isn't the government," she said.