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Robocall is a term for an automated telemarketing phone call that uses both a computerized autodialer and a computer-delivered recorded message. The implication is that a "robocall" resembles a telephone call from a robot.


Political calls

Robocalls are made by all political parties in the United States, as well as unaffiliated campaigns, 527 organizations, Unions, and individual citizens. Political robocalls are exempt from the United States National Do Not Call Registry. FCC regulations prohibit telemarketers from using automated dialers to call cell phone numbers. However, political groups are excluded from the FTC definition of telemarketer, thus robocalls from or on behalf of political organizations are still permitted on the federal level.[1]

The Federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) regulates automated calls.[2] While political calls are exempt from Federal regulations, all calls, irrespective of whether they are political in nature, must do two things to be considered legal. The federal law requires all telephone calls using pre-recorded messages to identify who is initiating the calls and include a telephone number or address whereby the initiator can be reached.

Some states (23 according to DMNews) have laws that distinguish political robocalls from other kinds of political telemarketing. For example, in Indiana and North Dakota, automated telemarketing calls are illegal.[3][4] In New Hampshire, political robocalls are allowed—except when the recipient is in the National Do Not Call Registry.[5] Many states require the disclosure of who paid for the call, often requiring such notice be recorded in the candidate's own voice. The patch-work of state laws regulating political robocalls has created problems for national campaigns.[6]


California Public Utilities Commission Code sections 2871-2876 holds political campaigns to the same rules as other organizations or businesses using "robo-calls."[7] The guidelines are: 1. A "live" person must come on the line before the recording to identify the nature of the call and the organization behind it. 2. The recipient of the call must consent to allowing the recording to be played. 3. The call must be disconnected from the telephone line as soon as the message is over or the recipient hangs up, whichever comes first.


In September 2008, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon alerted political campaigns in Missouri that this office would aggressively enforce federal rules (TCPA) requiring calls to include identifying and contact information.[8]

North Carolina

Robocalls were made during the 2008 North Carolina Democratic primary, targeting African-American voters in the days leading up to the primary in late April 2008,[9] which essentially told registered voters that they were not registered.[10] According to NPR[11] and Facing South[12], these calls were made by the organization "Women's Voices Women Vote."[13] Voters and watchdog groups complained that it was a turnout-suppression effort, and the state Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered them to stop making the calls.[13] The group stopped the calls and no further legal action was taken.

U.S. regulations

California Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Federal Robocall Privacy Act[14] in February 2008 at Senate Committee on Rules and Administration hearing. The Act proposed to: 1) Limit robo calls to no more than 2 a day by any one candidate, 2) mandate that candidates have accurate caller ID numbers displayed, 3) mandate that the disclosure of who is paying for the call occur at the start of the call, rather than at the end of the call, 4) mandate that the time of the call occur not before 8 AM or after 9 PM. The bill was read twice, and since it received no further action during the session, it did not become law.[15] It was introduced again on May 19, 2009 as S.1077.

Shaun Dakin, CEO of Citizens for Civil Discourse, testified at the hearing and described how robo calls impact the lives of voters across the nation.[14] He also wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post calling for a Voter Privacy Bill of Rights in which all voters would have the right to opt-out of political robocalls if they did not wish to receive them.[16]

Dakin, a former John Kerry campaign worker,[17] set up a website called and claimed to allow citizens to opt-out of receiving robocalls.[18][19][20][21] However, there is no guarantee that the registry will stop the calls and since there is no law that supports the database it is essentially an Internet petition. As mentioned above, the Robocall Privacy Act failed to become law and neither bill had provisions for a 'do not call registry' for stopping robocalls.[15][22]

Despite heavy media publicity of the database, only seven politicians in the United States voluntarily pledged to respect the list during the 2008 general election cycle. Of those seven, only three made it to the general election and only Virginia Foxx (R) was successfully reelected in November 2008.

On September 1, 2009, a new regulation of the Federal Trade Commission went into effect, banning most robocalls without written opt-in from the receiver. Political campaigns, surveys, charities, debt collectors, and health care providers are exempt, as are calls to businesses. Calls from banks, insurers, and phone companies are out of the jurisdiction of the FTC.[23] In situations under federal jurisdiction, the federal law will supersede a slightly less restrictive law in the state of California.[24]

2009 Federal Trade Commission action against one illegal robocall provider

In May 2009, in response to numerous complaints, the Federal Trade Commission asked a federal court to shut down a telemarketing campaign that has been bombarding U.S. consumers with hundreds of millions of allegedly deceptive robocalls in an effort to sell them vehicle service contracts under the guise that they are extensions of original vehicle warranties. The FTC took action against both the promoter of the phony extended auto warranties, as well as the telemarketing company that it hired to carry out its illegal, deceptive campaign. The FTC contends that the companies are operating a massive telemarketing scheme that uses random, pre-recorded phone calls to deceive consumers into thinking that their vehicle’s warranty is about to expire. Consumers who respond to the robocalls are pressured to purchase extended service contracts for their vehicles, which the telemarketers falsely portray as an extension of the manufacturer’s original warranty. According to papers the FTC filed with the court, the robocalls have prompted tens of thousands of complaints from consumers who are either on the United States National Do Not Call Registry or asked not to be called. Five telephone numbers associated with the defendants have generated a total of 30,000 Do Not Call complaints. Consumers received the robocalls at home, work, and on their cell phones, sometimes several times in one day. Businesses, government offices and even 911 dispatchers have been subjected to the calls.

Those who answer the pre-recorded calls hear a message telling them that their vehicle warranty is about to expire and that they should “extend coverage before it is too late.” They are told to “press one” to speak to a “warranty specialist.” The “specialists” then mislead consumers into believing that their company is affiliated with the dealer or manufacturer of the consumer’s vehicle. They try to sell consumers a service contract for between $2,000 and $3,000, which they falsely portray as an extension of the vehicle’s original warranty. The seller of extended auto warranties sued by the FTC allegedly took in more than $10 million on the sale of these deceptively marketed service contracts. In their robocalls, the companies dial every phone number within a particular area code and prefix sequentially, without knowing anything about the vehicles of the consumers they call, or whether those consumers’ numbers are on the Do Not Call Registry, the FTC alleged. Consumers who asked that the calls be stopped often were met with “abusive behavior” or were simply hung up on, according to the papers filed with the court. Some of the defendants used offshore shell corporations to try to avoid scrutiny, and a top officer in the telemarketing company bragged to prospective clients that he could operate outside the law without any chance of being caught by the FTC, the papers stated. This defendant also claimed that he makes 1.8 million dials per day and that he had done more than $40 million worth of dialing for extended warranty companies, including one billion dials on behalf of his largest client, according to the court papers filed by the FTC. In addition to the robocalls, the FTC charged that the company selling the warranties mails out deceptive postcards to consumers, warning them about the imminent expiration of their auto warranties. The postcards are designed to mislead consumers into believing that they are being contacted by their dealer or manufacturer, and the postcards offer consumers the chance to “renew” their original warranties.[25] On May 15, 2009 U.S. District Judge John F. Grady issued the temporary restraining order against the defendants Transcontinental Warranty Inc. and Voice Touch Inc. Grady's orders also applied to Transcontinental CEO and President Christopher Cowart, Voice Touch executives James and Maureen Dunne, Voice Touch business partner Network Foundations LLC and Network Foundations executive Damian Kohlfeld. Besides ordering a halt to the automatic telephone sales calls, Grady's order froze the assets of the two companies. The FTC alleged in its complaints that the calls were part of a deceptive scheme and asked the court to assure the assets will not be lost in case they might be needed to repay consumers who have been victimized. The FTC isn't immediately seeking civil fines against the companies but may do so later, agency officials said. Attorneys general in Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri have taken similar actions over calls offering extended warranties on automobiles.[26]

See also


  1. FTC - Q&A: The National Do Not Call Registry
  2. Federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA).
  3. Phonebank accents irk congressman – UPI, November 5, 2006.
  4. States enforce limits on robocalls – DMNews, "States enforce limits on robocalls"
  5. Repeat calls not from HodesConcord Monitor, November 5, 2006. "Repeat calls not from Hodes"
  6. Regulating Robocalls: Are Automated Calls the Sound of, or a Threat to, Democracy?Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, Forthcoming 2009. "Regulating Robocalls: Are Automated Calls the Sound of, or a Threat to, Democracy?"
  7. California Public Utilities Code Section 2871-2876.
  8. Attorney General's News Release. Nixon alerts political campaigns that federal law requires “robo-calls” to include identifying and contact information. September 4, 2008.
  9. "Elections board hunting robocaller," The News & Observer, April 28, 2008. Accessed April 29, 2008.
  10. Daily Kos Blog.[unreliable source?] (blog) Accessed April 29, 2008.
  11. Group with Clinton Ties Behind Dubious Robocalls : NPR
  12. Facing South: Center for Investigative Reporting follows Women's Voices' political connections
  13. 13.0 13.1 Murray, Shailagh, "Women's Voices, Women Vote: Did the Outreach Overreach?", Washington Post, Sunday, May 4, 2008; Page A10, found at Washington Post article on Women's Voices Women Vote. Accessed May 5, 2008.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Committee on Rules and Administration. Protecting Voters at Home and at the Polls: Limiting Abusive Robocalls and Vote Caging Practices. February 27, 2008.
  15. 15.0 15.1 S. 2624: Robocall Privacy Act of 2008. Accessed 4 January 2009.
  16. Washington Post. A Privacy Shield Against the Campaigns. Shaun Dakin. Saturday, September 13, 2008; Page A17.
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  19. "NBC Affliate TMJ". 
  20. "Fox News".,2933,430242,00.html. 
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  22. H.R. 5747: Robocall Privacy Act of 2008. Accessed 23 October 2008.
  25. FTC: Judge Orders Halt To Robocalls Selling Deceptive Warranties, Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2009
  26. Judge blocks 'robo-calls' selling car warranties, Associated Press, May 15, 2009

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