I nearly broke my neck one evening a couple of Fridays ago, running down the stairs to grab the ringing cell phone I left in my living room.
Thinking it was an important call, I unleashed a slew of obscenities when a threatening robo-voice told me that my car warranty is about to expire and if I don't act "immediately" on this final warning then I would live to regret it.
I'm exaggerating ever so slightly, but the nuisance call is not the first I've received from these jokers. They ring my cell at all hours of the day and night. They come on weekends. They come by text message. They probably call my home phone, too, but I never answer that line. I also have no idea if it's the same bunch of bucketheads pestering me since the area codes come from all over, including Texas, Nevada and sometimes Florida.
These companies are harassing people all over the country, too, on cell phones, home phones, on work lines and through snail mail. The Better Business Bureau has been bombarded with 27,000 complaints.
Attorneys general in Connecticut, North Carolina and Nevada, just to name a few, are warning consumers to beware of high-pressure tactics used by such companies to sell you over-priced service contracts you don't need, and scam artists looking to steal your personal data. The Missouri Attorney General filed suit a few months ago against several car warranty operations that set up shop in the Show Me State - 92 are located in the St. Louis area alone.
"This is really an issue that is on the radar, nationally," said John Fougere, a spokesman for the Missouri AG. "We have consumers from all over the country who are [plaintiffs] in our lawsuits against these car warranty companies."
These calls are beyond just an irritation. Many are blatantly flouting federal and state laws.
Federal Communications Commission regulations prohibit telemarketers from using automated dialers to call cell phone numbers. Telemarketers are prohibited from calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. If your number is listed on the Do Not Call Registry, they're prohibited from calling you at all.
Not satisfied with just breaking laws, Fougere says, many of the companies have intimidated and misled people into purchasing extended warranties at a cost of $1,800 to several thousand dollars. Many have falsely convinced consumers that the warranties are being sold to them through their auto manufacturers.
"Some people who bought these warranties haven't had a warranty on their car in years," Fougere said. "Some people who received calls don't even own a car. But many, in a panic, purchased something they didn't need. We took action when we discovered that these companies were harming consumers."
If you're thinking you can't be fooled, think again.
The letter in my mail said, "URGENT," in big, bold letters. I initially thought it was sent by my auto manufacturer to tell me my warranty expired and to call them immediately. Upon closer inspection on a second and third reading, I realized it wasn't.
The first phone call I received had the same fear-mongering tone, warning me this was my second notice. I don't remember ever receiving the first.
It made my mind race. In a panic, I thought: When did I buy my car? Didn't I purchase an extended warranty for it? Did it really expire already? Was there something wrong with my car?
I thought about pushing a button to speak to an agent until I remembered that the warranty on my car was not even a year old. Also, my fear of an expired warranty isn't nearly as great as my fear of listening to an automated voice telling me what to do. So I press nothing, swear a lot and then hang up because I am neurotically wary of fraud and high-tech hijinks.
"It's based on fear," Fougere said. "We're asking people who get these calls to take a minute to think and check on their warranties before they do anything."
In trying to track down the most recent warranty company that called me, I punched in the number that appeared on my cell phone caller ID, 409-812-1012. An automated operator said the number was out of service.
Online, I typed the number into a search engine and found that the number is based in Beaumont, Texas. I then tried calling Grande Communications Networks Inc., the service provider for that number, to complain. A service rep informed me that, "There's not much we can do about it. It's just someone who pays us to use that line. We have no control in that situation. You'll have to file a complaint with the FCC."
Fougere said it's difficult to know where these companies are finding our numbers, especially cell phone numbers. Missouri's investigation found that some of the warranty companies they sued were randomly dialing numbers and some were pulling public data from deed recorders' offices or purchasing customer lists from businesses. In some cases, the number shown might be masking the caller's real location.
So what can we do to stop these bozos, since we're paying for every call they make to our cell phones?