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Hey, robocallers, take this: FTC, Illinois, other states announce major crackdown on spam calls

The move comes as Congress is considering the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act to make phone carriers offer free tech to identify and block illegal sales calls to cellphones and landlines.

Todd Kossow, Midwest regional director of the Federal Trade Commission.
Todd Kossow, Midwest regional director of the Federal Trade Commission.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

The Federal Trade Commission, the Illinois and Indiana attorneys general and law enforcement officials from 15 other states announced a major crackdown Tuesday on illegal — and lucrative — robocalls.

The moves come as Congress is considering bipartisan legislation called the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, which would require phone carriers to offer consumers free technology to identify and block spam calls on cellphones and landlines in response to a practice that rates among consumers’ top complaints.

It’s high time, according to Jeri Wilds, 52, of St. Joseph, Missouri.

Wilds was in Chicago for the announcement Tuesday of the enforcement blitz after helping the FTC build a case filed earlier this month against CSG Solutions.

She says the Orlando, Florida, robocaller called her “out of the blue” last year with a prerecorded message that “said I may be eligible to be able to reduce or completely eliminate my credit-card debt.”

“I pressed ‘1’ to talk to a real person, and it just went downhill from there,” said Wilds, a retired Air Force medic who does patient screening for a Veterans Affairs clinic.

Wilds said the company knew which credit cards she had — and what her balances were. The representative she spoke with wanted $1,000 upfront. Wilds declined.

Soon after, Chase Bank and Citibank told her someone was trying to obtain credit cards in her name.

Wilds put a freeze on her credit file, notified her bank and credit issuers and demanded the company stop, which she said responded by repeatedly calling to demand she pay the $1,000 fee plus $1,300 for debt collection and attorney’s fees. She ignored the calls.

Attempts to reach CSG Solutions Tuesday weren’t successful.

According to the FTC, which has had the company’s assets frozen, three men operating as CSG and also under another name targeted consumers — many of them seniors, in some cases despite their being on the federal “Do Not Call” list — with “offers of bogus credit-card interest-rate reduction services.”

Altogether, the FTC and state authorities announced 94 enforcement actions they said targeted illegal robocallers that made a total of over 1 billion calls to consumers.

In several cases, the government has won multimillion-dollar civil penalties or judgments. One of those, a case filed in federal court in Chicago against Lifewatch Inc., a New York company that called people in Chicago and elsewhere to pitch medical-alert devices, resulted in a court order Monday permanently banning several defendants from telemarketing and ordering them to pay $2 million. Other cases are newly filed.

Some illegal robocalls pitched weight-loss aids, solar panels and various money-making opportunities, according to the FTC.

Any sales call using a prerecorded message is illegal, said Todd Kossow, the federal agency’s Chicago-based Midwest regional director, unless you have signed up — in writing — to allow such calls.

Last year, illegal robocalls prompted about 3.8 million complaints to the FTC.

“The first question I always get is: ‘How can I stop all the robocalls that are coming to my cellphone or my landline?’ ” Kossow said.