From the L.A. Daily News
Effectiveness of do-not-call registry questioned as phone solicitation complaints rise
by Jennifer C. Kerr
WASHINGTON - So much for silence from telemarketers at the cherished dinner hour, or any other hour of the day.
Complaints to the government are up sharply about unwanted phone solicitations, raising questions about how well the federal "do-not-call" registry is working. The biggest category of complaint: those annoying prerecorded pitches called robocalls that hawk everything from lower credit card interest rates to new windows for your home.
Robert Madison, 43, of Shawnee, Kan., says he gets automated calls almost daily from "Ann, with credit services," offering to lower his interest rates.
"I am completely fed up," Madison said in an interview. "I've repeatedly asked them to take me off their call list." When he challenges their right to call, the solicitors become combative, he said. "There's just nothing that they won't do."
Madison, who works for a software company, says his phone number has been on the do-not-call list for years. Since he hasn't made any progress getting "Ann" to stop calling, Madison has started to file complaints about her to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the list.
Amid fanfare from consumer advocates, the federal do-not-call list was put in place nearly a decade ago as a tool to limit telemarketing sales calls to people who didn't want to be bothered. The registry has more than 209 million phone numbers on it. That's a significant chunk of the country, considering that there are about 84 million residential customers with traditional landline phones and plenty more people with cellphone numbers, which can also be placed on the list.
Telemarketers are supposed to check the list at least every 31 days for numbers they can't call. But some are calling anyway, and complaints about phone pitches are climbing even as the number of telemarketers checking the registry has dropped dramatically.
Government figures show monthly robocall complaints have climbed from about 65,000 in October 2010 to more than 212,000 this April. More general complaints from people asking a telemarketer to stop calling them also rose during that period, from about 71,000 to 182,000.
At the same time, fewer telemarketers are checking the FTC list to see which numbers are off limits. In 2007, more than 65,000 telemarketers checked the list. Last year, only about 34,000 did so.
Despite those numbers, the FTC says the registry is doing an effective job fighting unwanted sales calls.
"It's absolutely working," Lois Greisman, associate director of the agency's marketing practices division, said in an interview with The Associated Press. But, she said, "the proliferation of robocalls creates a challenge for us."
Greisman said prerecorded messages weren't used as a major marketing tool in 2003, when the registry began. "In part because of technology and in part because of greater competitiveness in the marketplace, they have become the marketing vehicle of choice for fraudsters," she said.
For people trying to scam people out of their money, it's an attractive option. Robocalls are hard to trace and cheap to make.
With an autodialer, millions of calls can be blasted out in a matter of hours, bombarding people in a struggling economy with promises of debt assistance and cheap loans. Even if a consumer does not have a phone number on the do-not-call list, robocalls are illegal. A 2009 rule specifically banned this type of phone sales pitch unless a consumer has given written permission to a company to call.
Political robocalls and automated calls from charities, or informational robocalls, such as an airline calling about a flight delay, are exempt from the ban. But those exemptions are being abused, too, with consumers complaining of getting calls that begin as a legitimate call, say from a charity or survey, but then eventually switch to an illegal telemarketing sales pitch.
Robocalls can be highly annoying to consumers because they're hard to stop. Fraudsters use caller-ID spoofing so that when a person tries to call back the robocaller, they get a disconnected number or something other than the source of the original call.
The best thing people can do when they get an illegal robocall is to hang up. Do not press "1" to speak to a live operator to get off the call list. If you do, the FTC says, it will probably just lead to more robocalls. The caller will know you're there and willing to answer, and may continue to call.
The FTC says people can also contact their phone providers to ask them to block the number. But be sure to ask whether they charge for that. Telemarketers change caller-ID information often, so it might not be worth paying a fee to block a number that will soon change.
The industry says most legitimate telemarketers don't utilize robocalls to generate sales.
"They give a bad name to telemarketers and hurt everybody," says Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at Direct Marketing Association, a trade group.
Cerasale says the do-not-call list has resulted in telemarketers making far fewer cold calls to random people. Instead, he says, marketers have shifted to other methods of reaching people, such as mail, email or targeted advertisements on websites. That, he said, could be one of the reasons that the number of telemarketers checking the registry has dropped so sharply.
In light of the increased complaints, the FTC is stepping up efforts to combat robocalls. It recently released two consumer videos to explain what robocalls are and what to do about them. It also announced an October summit to examine the problem and explore the possibility of emerging technology that might help trace robocalls and prevent scammers from spoofing their caller ID.
Enforcement is another tool. The FTC has brought cases against about a dozen companies since 2009, including Talbots, DirecTV and Dish Network. The cases have yielded $5.6 million in penalties.
The agency said this month that it was mailing refund checks to more than 4,000 consumers nationwide who were caught up in a scam where the telemarketer used robocalls from names like "Heather from card services" to pitch worthless credit card rate reduction programs for an up-front fee. Checks to consumers range from $31 to $1,300 depending on how much was lost.
To file a complaint with the FTC, people can go online to www.ftc.gov or call 888-382-1222 to report their experience for possible enforcement.
From Google News
NY State Police taking part in child safety week
ALBANY, N.Y. — Law enforcement agencies across New York state are participating in National Child Passenger Safety Week.
New York State Police, local police agencies and highway safety professionals are taking part in the weeklong enforcement effort that began Sunday and runs through Saturday.
Police officials say safety week is aimed at drawing attention to the threats faced by child passengers in motor vehicle crashes. Police will be checking vehicles carrying children to make sure they are properly secured in vehicles.
Federal program helps Mesa with crime-ridden neighborhood
by Jim Walsh
After countless arrests but little change in a notorious neighborhood where two dead-end streets have often translated into dead-end lives, frustrated Mesa police were ready for a new strategy.
Allen and Doran streets define a harsh reality in central Mesa that is far removed from pleasant suburban neighborhoods only a few miles away. Their prison-oriented slang names describe what life has become: "Dblock" for Doran and "Felony Flats" for Allen.
Neither street can be seen from the nearest major intersection at Broadway Road and Stapley Drive. A series of fourplexes with asphalt front yards sit tucked behind the commercial clutter, where people mill about at night, fleeing their hot, small, swamp-cooled apartments.
But police say criminals have had few problems finding the low-income, highly transient neighborhood.
For decades, it has been known as a place where burglars and shoplifters come to trade stolen property for drugs, where prostitutes trade sex for drugs, where landlords know only the first names of tenants and accept payment in cash, where parents too often serve as poor role models for children who lost hope for a better life.
When the International Association of Chiefs of Police picked Mesa nearly a year ago as one of three cities to participate in a federally financed study, police, prosecutors, probation officers and community workers quickly embraced the project.
They picked Dblock as a real-life laboratory to test a holistic program aimed at fighting crime at its roots, realizing that arrests alone were inadequate for making long-lasting improvements in the neighborhood.
Although Dblock and Felony Flats are each just a block long, they generated 462 calls for service during 2011. The area has 274 multifamily units and about 1,200 residents.
Police considered the two streets their target area but quickly branched out after realizing they could not separate the two blocks from the surrounding area.
"We picked a difficult neighborhood," said Lt. Jeff Thompson, who supervised the project from its inception. "We picked a neighborhood that would not be a slam dunk. We wanted a good test for the program."
Working as a team, police, prosecutors and probation officers employed a community prosecution model that focused on what the neighborhood needed to improve, combining the bite of arrests with social programs to help teens find jobs and community-building to identity neighborhood leaders and to bolster pride.
The community prosecution approach used in Dblock may serve as a model for improved crime fighting in the Valley and across the country after the project is spotlighted later this month at the international police chiefs' conference in San Diego.
There are still struggles to address problems reaching back decades, but Mesa law-enforcement leaders, prosecutors and even some longtime residents believe they are steadily making headway. Already, Mesa police and the City Prosecutor's Office are making plans to target another neighborhood -- Guerrero Rotary Park -- in the fall, City Prosecutor Jon Eliason said.
Model for future?
The Maricopa County Adult Probation Office views the alliances formed in Mesa as a model for future projects throughout the Valley, with police, prosecutors and probation officers working together weekly, said Wes Shipley, supervisor of Adult Probation's East Valley office.
"It's the first time we've had all these agencies focused on one area at the same time," said Deputy County Attorney Jarom Harris, who prosecutes all felony cases in the neighborhood. Red tape has been replaced by strong working relationships among those assigned to the project, he said.
Although there have been more than 380 arrests during the yearlong project, the changes on Dblock and Felony Flats extend far beyond that.
"It's easy to arrest people. It's difficult to change things," said John FitzGerald, a Mesa police street-crimes detective who has coordinated the police focus on Dblock.
With guns strapped to their waists and legs, a small army of Mesa street-crimes detectives and an adult-probation officer descended on Dblock earlier this summer, one of dozens of strategic operations targeting drug houses and other crime hotbeds.
"You pretty much name it. I don't think we had a homicide, but we've had just about everything else," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald said he senses a change in attitudes on Dblock, with residents more likely to call police and career criminals being forced to move because of a heavy police presence.
"I think one thing that will come out of this project is improved policing," he said, through better cooperation among police, prosecutors and probation officers.
Miriam Sanchez, a mother of three children primarily concerned about safety, said the heavy police presence didn't bother her because she stays inside at night with her kids.
"For me, it's better. They don't bother me, the cops doing that," she said.
Sanchez said she is encouraged that residents are turning out for community meetings and showing a commitment to improving the neighborhood. In the past, "I think people were afraid to speak," she said.
Sanchez said the neighborhood is improving but still has problems with drugs, vandalism and other issues. "We want a good neighborhood. We want better, not getting worse, for our kids," she said.
Highlights of the multifaceted project include:
City-code violations were used to target troublemakers responsible for dozens of calls for service, removing through evictions undesirable people considered magnets for crime. The teamwork has paid off in court, with defendants identified as troublemakers in the neighborhood getting harsher sentences than they otherwise would have received.
A fledgling employment program has provided training in job-interview skills for teenagers. Six teens from the area have been placed in jobs, two who received training found jobs on their own, and 80 were trained on how to find a job, said coordinator Ray Villa.
FitzGerald is working to make arrangements for children from the Dblock area to get rides to the Mesa Boys & Girls Club after school, providing them with a safe, fun environment.
Repeat offenders are being "trespassed" out of the neighborhood as a condition of probation. They can be arrested on sight by police for merely returning to Dblock.
Police say a culture of trust is building with residents who are seeing their neighborhood improve gradually. They note that many low-income but law-abiding residents are sick of crime and want a safer place to live for themselves and their children.
About 43 tons of trash was removed from yards during three neighborhood cleanup projects. Police and probation workers joined with probationers in the cleanup campaigns.
Once appliances, mattresses and other large items were removed, workers uncovered filth that included hypodermic needles and other dangerous items.
Community-building efforts included a series of meetings that identified leaders in the area and contacts. A public-safety newsletter was distributed to address topics like graffiti and curfew violations.
"I think we have made a lot of great relationships," said Lindsey Balinkie, a Mesa neighborhood-outreach coordinator. "It's kind of a foundation to move forward."
A success story
Officer Amanda Stamps, a beat cop who has worked the neighborhood for years, said she focuses much of her efforts urging teens to get an education, to work instead of steal for what they want and to shun bad influences.
Stamps counts Daniel Ruiz, an 18-year-old Mesa High School student, as a success story.
Ruiz didn't need to participate in the employment program because he already had a job at a nearby supermarket.
A promising left-handed pitcher who said he has been offered a scholarship by Arizona State University, Ruiz said he uses baseball to stay out of trouble but said his main motivation is making his family proud.
"I just want to finish school and be the first one in my family to go to college," Ruiz said. "I want to tell my kids I came from nothing and I went to college."
Ruiz said it is possible to grow up in a neighborhood like Dblock and succeed, but it takes discipline.
"It's just not me. I've seen what drugs and gang violence does to people around here," he said. "I don't want to be the guy at the hospital who OD'd on drugs."
Calls for service from residents increased early in the program as police held neighborhood events and a Christmas toy drive to cultivate a better relationship with residents. The calls dropped in April and May, a sign of less crime, but increased slightly in June and remained about the same in July.
Although Thompson was hoping for a steeper decline, he said the relationships built among police, residents and other agencies will improve the effectiveness of crime fighting in the years ahead.
"It's still a success, it's still a win, as opposed to calls for service going up," he said.
Jackie Hinkle, an elder at the Mesa Church of Christ, said the neighborhood has been in decline for at least 20 years and the construction of too many rental units in too small of an area contributed to the problem.
"Forty years ago, it was a fairly good neighborhood. The housing was kept up real good. Everyone was proud of where they lived," he said.
But landlords failed to keep up their properties or to care about who lived there, said Hinkle, a contractor and a landlord himself in another part of town.
He said the project improved the church's outreach to the community.
"They have improved the neighborhood overall. It's whatever the church can do to help them," Hinkle said.
Rick Lisko, program manager for the police chiefs association's Intelligence-Led Community Policing Project, said he considers Mesa's project more challenging than the two others: a housing project in Newport News, Va., and a high-crime patrol district in St. Paul, Minn. He said the Dblock target area presents unique problems because there is no central organization in the neighborhood, there are language barriers and there is high turnover among residents.
"It's not a panacea, it's not a paradise, but they have made great strides," Lisko said. "They are ambitious about trying things that are very different and not afraid to fail."
Lisko plans to cite the experiences of Mesa, St. Paul and Newport News in a guidebook detailing effective methods of community policing at the police chiefs association's convention in San Diego.
"It's efficient, it's economical" to have multiple criminal-justice agencies working together to improve problem neighborhoods, he said. "This can be implemented anywhere in the country at no cost."