Image: Phone © Corbis

One of my daughter's favorite teachers lost a 7-year-old child to leukemia. So when we were asked recently to donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, we were happy to do so.

My happiness curdled several days later when a telemarketer from the society called, asking us to hit up our neighbors for more donations. It was just the latest in a string of unwanted calls from charities, political groups, time share salesmen, scam artists and unscrupulous businesses we've received in recent weeks -- not to mention multiple "dead air" calls where no one was on the line when we answered.

The National Do Not Call Registry that went live nearly a decade ago was supposed to make our dinner hours safe from telemarketers. It hasn't quite turned out that way, thanks to exceptions and gray areas in the law, as well as telemarketers determined to ignore the consumer protections contained in the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003.

Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about violations of the do-not-call list rose from 579,838 in 2004 to 2.2 million last year. My Facebook readers have noticed the upsurge as well, and some of them have creative ways of coping:

  • "(I) put my 3 year old on the phone and tell him it's Santa."
  • "I let my teenagers answer the phone. Let your imagination run with how they handle it."
  • "Let them talk for a (minute), ask them to repeat what they said, then ask them to buy your 2005 John Deere 46 inch power-cut, 360 degree turn riding mower. Tell them every feature and keep repeating. "
  • "Hang up while you are talking. They never suspect that."
  • "Tell them to hold on. Set the phone down and walk away!!"
  • The problem with these methods is that while they may give you a certain wicked sense of satisfaction, they don't really do anything to reduce the volume of telemarketing calls you get. Wasting telemarketers' time won't get you removed from the vast database of phone numbers they use (and sell to each other).

Neither will using an air horn, which is rude and potentially dangerous to the schmuck making minimum wage on the other end. Demanding to be put on the caller's do-not-call list -- which by law is supposed to work -- often doesn't.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Regulators have taken some high-profile enforcement actions (like one against Dish Network) and are fine-tuning the rules about robo-calls (automatically made and prerecorded calls).

But I decided not to wait around for the government to ease my pain. Instead, I became a do-not-call ninja, determined to stop these calls by any legal, prudent and moral means necessary.

Obviously, the first step is to register your phone numbers with the national do-not-call list. (You're not supposed to have to register wireless numbers, since telemarketers legally aren't allowed to call those. But it couldn't hurt.) I then found that two tools -- caller ID and call blocking -- helped enormously.

Although bad guys can "spoof" caller ID by giving out phony information, a practice that's been illegal since 2009, most of the time caller ID offers a good idea of who's on the line and provides a record of who's called. If the caller provides just a number, rather than including the required business name as well, you can usually use a search engine to find the caller's identity.

Once I had a number and a name, I had a choice:

  • I could decide whether to pick up or call back and ask to be put on their do-not-call list -- something legitimate businesses should be willing to do.
  • If I had any doubts about the caller's bona fides, I could skip that step and simply go online to my digital phone service account and add the number to the "blocked call" list before filing a complaint with the do-not-call registry.

If you have digital phone service, the kind provided over broadband Internet, you likely can manage your list of blocked calls online. If you have traditional land-line service, call and ask your carrier how to block calls. It's often as easy as pushing "*60#," entering the number and pushing "#" again. Another option is to get a Google Voice number, which allows blocking and maintains a by-subscription list of spam callers that don't get through.

Simply screening calls, and not answering, doesn't get you off any telemarketing lists. Of course, picking up might not help either, since it might be one of the robo-calls that just goes to dead air if there isn't a telemarketer available to get on the line with you. But you have to take action if you want to reduce the volume of calls you get.

For example, we were being pelted with calls from Hilton Grand Vacations. I'm a member of Hilton's frequent-guest club, so I surmise that its time share outlet was using the "established business relationship" exception to the do-not-call list's prohibition on telemarketing calls. (Charities, political organizations and pollsters are allowed to ignore the registry -- but not your subsequent requests to be put on the individual organization's internal do-not-call list.) A single call to Hilton Grand Vacation's toll-free number put a stop to the intrusions.