Giving 'Rachel' telemarketer an earful

Telemarketing calls from 'Rachel from cardholder services' have become public enemy No. 1 at the FTC, but stopping the robocalls has been difficult. One man's idea may prove effective.

Maybe you got a call from Rachel over the holidays.

That's Rachel as in "Rachel from cardholder services," those incredibly annoying telemarketing pitches that prompted the former head of the Federal Trade Commission, Jon Leibowitz, to declare Rachel "public enemy No. 1."

I've written about Rachel from time to time. Texas resident Mark Levitt, 53, saw a past column online and contacted me recently with his suggestions for giving Rachel a taste of her own medicine.

"There needs to be a grass-roots effort to fight back," he said.

I'll return in a moment to Levitt's ideas, which are admittedly a little kooky but nevertheless could be more effective than the steps taken so far by federal officials.

In case you lead a charmed life and haven't yet received a Rachel call, here's how they work:

The typical call — it could be from "Rachel" or "Shirley" or "Ann" or any number of other aliases — begins with a recording from something called cardholder services informing you that you might be able to lower your credit-card interest rate by pressing 1.

Doing so will connect you with a live agent, who will request your credit card number and probably your Social Security number as well. This can lead to, at best, a lousy new card deal. More likely, you'll have your identity stolen.

Informing the agent that you're on the do-not-call list or telling him to stop bugging you will almost always result in the telemarketer quickly hanging up.

Roberto Anguizola, the FTC's assistant director of marketing practices, told me that these calls are "the No. 1 telemarketing complaint-getter by a wide margin."

The FTC received roughly 2.2 million complaints last year about so-called robocalls, of which the Rachel calls were the most frequently cited offenders. The agency doesn't break out Rachel calls from total robocalls, which accounted for nearly 60% of all telemarketing complaints.

Officials have a hard time shutting Rachel down because numerous telemarketing outfits are now running the racket, often employing the same recordings. Every time the feds track one group down, another pops up to take its place.

Levitt said he's been pestered by Rachel for years. "It's an ongoing plague," he said.

What frustrates Levitt most is a sense of futility. If you say "no thanks" to the Rachel caller, he hangs up. If you say you're on the do-not-call list, he hangs up. "And then they go and bother someone else."

He's complained to the FTC, but Levitt said that offered little satisfaction. "You could tell they're weary of all this," he said.

So here's what Levitt does now and wants the rest of us to do as well: He plays ball with Rachel. As soon as he gets a Rachel telemarketer on the phone, his only goal is to make the call last as long as possible and thus completely waste the caller's time.

This isn't just fun. Levitt figures that if there's any way to get these people to remove you from their calling list, this is it. The only thing these companies value is making the most of their telemarketers' time. This hits them where they live.

Levitt's first step is to respond enthusiastically to the initial offer of lower credit-card rates. "Tell me more," he'll say. "What are the details?"

When he's asked for his credit card number, he gives a phony one. Then he kicks back while the telemarketer is contacting the card company to verify the account.

When the telemarketer reports that the card number didn't pass muster, Levitt politely apologizes and then gives an almost identical one with two digits transposed.

He'll play this game as many times as the telemarketer lets him get away with it. When he's finally through toying with the guy, Levitt will invite him to call again tomorrow and go through it all again.

"I'm tired of being a victim," he told me. "So I'll do my part to protect myself and also keep the telemarketer busy so he's not calling someone else."

A person obviously needs to be committed to the anti-Rachel crusade to devote the time necessary for a reverse scam like this. If people think Levitt is a little loony, so be it, he said.

But he makes a fair point: If ordinary people don't stand up to the Rachel callers, who will? Sure, the FTC has lowered the boom on a few of them, but many more continue operating.

I find it hard not to agree with Levitt's reasoning that few telemarketers will return for a repeat performance. Punk one like this, and he'll almost certainly delete you from the company's database.

Got your own Rachel remedy? Let me know how you keep telemarketers at bay, and I'll share your technique with others.

"These guys are terrorists," Levitt said. "They're a real threat to society. It's our civic duty to fight them."

That's a little over the top. But it's not far off the mark.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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