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.


On the other hand, we were receiving multiple calls a week from a Wisconsin number that either disconnected or left a garbled recorded message about helping us stop a "pending foreclosure" (we're in no danger of losing our home, thank you very much). A quick Internet search found lots of other people were getting similar calls, even though they weren't in financial trouble. The obviously sketchy nature of this outfit meant I didn't want to have any more contact than necessary with the sleazeballs behind it, so the number was added to our "blocked" list and reported to the FTC.

Something similar happened when I answered a call from a local number and was told by the caller that I was being offered a great deal by a general contractor "because you've worked with us in the past." We've never worked with a general contractor, and I certainly wouldn't work with one that lied about an existing business relationship. I told the caller to put us on the company's do-not-call list and reported the number to the FTC (here's how to make a complaint).


The FTC doesn't follow up on these individual complaints, by the way. But it can use a pattern of complaints to take action, and I believe in giving regulators all the ammunition they need. It takes only a few seconds to make a complaint, so I do so - - early and often.

Caller blocking isn't a perfect solution, either. Determined bad guys can spoof their way around a block, and your carrier may limit how many numbers you can ignore. But it's made a real difference in how often the phone rings around here.

Other actions that help:

  • Stop entering contests. The purpose of contests, sweepstakes and giveaways is typically to collect information about you that can be used by or sold to marketers.
  • Opt out. Stop ignoring those annual privacy notices you get from financial-services companies. Respond and tell them not to sell or share your information with anyone else. Sign up for the credit bureaus' do-not-market list at OptOutPrescreen.com.
  • Get stingy. Just because a business asks for your phone number doesn't mean that you have to give it out. If it's an online merchant that may need to contact me about an order, I give it my cell number. If it's a grocery store or other loyalty card provider, they get a number that's been disconnected for a decade. (Why would my grocer need to call me? To tell me those apples may not be as fresh as they look?) You'll find out how many others do this if you're ever without a loyalty card in the checkout lane -- just use a random area code and the number 867-5309. If you weren't around in 1982, ask an elder to sing Jenny's number for you (or listen to it here).
  • Be brief. As I mentioned earlier, ignoring calls won't stop them from coming. But in taking action, you shouldn't give a telemarketer the opportunity to browbeat you or waste any more of your time. Telemarketers are supposed to tell you, right off the bat, what company or entity they represent. If they don't within the first few seconds, interrupt them with "Who is calling, please?" Follow up with "Put me on your do-not-call list." Then hang up. There's no need for further niceties. Make a note of the business or charity name, the number and the date of your request so you can report violations to the FTC.

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  • Don't reward them. Organizations use telemarketing because it's a relatively cheap and fast way to harass a lot of people at once. Giving telemarketers information, or worse yet, money, only encourages them to keep it up. With the leukemia society, I took it a step further. I sent an email saying that if I ever got another telemarketing call from that charity, I'd never contribute again. The society promised to remove me from its fundraising calling list. And so far, they haven't called back.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.