Unwanted calls from a business trying to sell you something can be a nuisance. But even worse, unwanted calls from scammers trying to steal your money or identity can be harmful—and illegal.
Marketing goods or services to potential customers over the telephone is called “telemarketing.” If you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, the call is a “robocall.” Telemarketers and scammers often use robocall technology.
Washington consumers receive tens of millions of robocalls each month. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received over 100,000 complaints from Washington consumers who received unwanted calls. It is estimated that consumers nationwide lose billions a year through robocall and telemarketing scams.
Because legitimate businesses and scammers use the same technology, you need to recognize the warning signs associated with scams. It is also important to know how to get unwanted telemarketing calls to stop. To assist consumers in Washington, the Attorney General’s Office has created this website to provide more detailed information on how to avoid becoming a victim of robocall and telemarketing scams, and what to do if you are a victim.
Our office has also created a form to report suspected robocall and telemarketing scams.
What is a robocall?
Robocalls are telephone calls that play a recorded message when you answer or when it goes to voicemail. Businesses trying to sell you something might use robocalls. But unless a business has prior permission to send you a robocall to sell a product or service, the robocall is illegal.
If a robocall is illegal, there is also a good chance it is a scam. At the very least, a company using robocalls to sell you something is probably not a company with which you want to do business.
A few types of robocalls are allowed without your permission. These include political calls about candidates, charities asking for donations, or any message that is purely informational (e.g., flight status, school closures, etc.).
What is telemarketing?
Telemarketing is when a business uses telecommunication devices such as telephones, text messages, and the internet to contact potential customers. The process is also used for political and charitable calls.
While some telemarketers call to sell you something, others are scammers trying to steal your money or personal information. Legitimate telemarketers must always comply with Washington Commercial Solicitation Laws under RCW 19.158 and RCW 80.36.390. These requirements include the following:
- Telemarketers must identify themselves and on whose behalf they are calling within the first 30 seconds of the call.
- Telemarketers must end the call within 10 seconds if the called party asks to end the call.
- Telemarketers must remove a called party from their telephone list for a year if the called party indicates they do not want to be called again by the caller.
- Telemarketers shall not place calls to any person before 8:00 am or after 8:00 pm at the call recipient’s location.
- Telemarketers are prohibited from engaging in any unprofessional conduct, the natural consequence is to harass, intimidate, or torment the called party.
- Telemarketers are prohibited from calling a telephone number that is registered on the federal Do Not Call Registry maintained by the federal government.
- Telemarketers are prohibited from using misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.
Report any telemarketers that violate these laws by filing a reporting form with the Attorney General’s Office.
Is the robocall or telemarketer claiming to be a government or law enforcement agency seeking money or personal information?
Do not trust your Caller ID. Scammers can fake the name and number that appears on your caller ID, making it look like the call is from the government or another reputable caller. This is called “spoofing.” If you are not sure if the call is legitimate, hang up and look for a telephone number on the government or business’s website to call back.
Is the robocall or telemarketer offering to “fix a problem” with your account, computer, or benefits (such as Medicare or Social Security)?
Never give personal or financial information. A legitimate caller should never ask for your password, social security number, or bank account number. Businesses will send you a letter if there is really a problem with an account. If the caller is trying to “fix” a problem on your computer, hang up and restart your computer. If you have an actual problem with your computer, take it to a reputable business for repair.
Is the robocall or telemarketer demanding payment from non-traceable payment sources?
Do not pay. You can often detect a scam if the call is asking you to wire money or pay for something with a gift card. That is because there is no way for you recover your money once you send it through these routes and it makes it harder for law enforcement to track the scammer.
Is the robocall or telemarketer pressuring you to act quickly, or discourage you from talking to a family member or friend before acting on the call?
Resist pressure. These tactics are used to prevent you from changing your mind.
Is the robocall or telemarketer claiming you won something for “free” but asks that you pay money for shipping, handling, or other fee?
Do not accept. Nothing is actually “free” from an unsolicited call. At best, the caller will take whatever fee you send them and not deliver the “free” offer. At worst, the caller is seeking personal or financial information that can be used to steal your money or identity.
Remember that some robocalls or telemarketers may come from bonafide charitable organizations, but it is wise to contact the Secretary of State's Charitable Division at 1-800-332-4483, or visit their website, to make sure they are registered with the state before you give money or credit card information to any unsolicited request. Any authentic and genuine charity will likely not mind someone looking up their information before giving them any payments.
How to stop robocalls?
- Don’t answer. If you don’t recognize a number, you can let the call go to voicemail. Robocalls often come from a number you do not recognize or from a blocked or unknown number. Don’t assume an incoming call is local even if the caller ID shows a local number.
- Hang up. The robocall might ask you press a number to speak with a live operator or to remove you from their call list, but this might lead to more robocalls since it tells the caller that you answer your phone and listen to the recordings.
- Block. Many call-blocking and call-labeling solutions can help you get fewer illegal robocalls. You can check with your landline phone service provider to see what options are available. Mobile phones include features built into the phone that will identify suspected spam calls or block specific numbers.
- Report. Report any robocalls you receive to our office. Please report any robocalls you have recently received.
Always report the scam to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. The Washington State Attorney General’s Office takes telephone scam reporting seriously. When you report these calls to our office, you are helping us fight telemarketers and robocallers preying on you and countless other Washingtonians. To request a Telephone Scams Reporting Form by mail, you may call 800-551-4636. You may also print a form here.
With the information collected, we can see patterns in the complaints and, if we can determine who is making these calls, our office can investigate whether these businesses and individuals are doing so in violation of the law. Our office generally will not respond to a reporting form submission. However, as part of our investigation, our office may contact you to discuss your report. If we determine who is making the calls and that the caller is violating the law, we can bring enforcement actions against these businesses and individuals.
How to stop telemarketing calls?
Consumers who wish to decrease the amount of unsolicited telemarketing calls they receive should register with the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry at donotcall.gov. Telemarketers that wish to operate legally must honor the requests of consumers who have placed their telephone numbers on the DNC Registry. You can also refer to information on the FTC’s website on Unwanted Calls.
Note that unwanted telemarketing calls often start by providing consent to a company (usually hidden in fine print) to send you telemarketing calls. Remember to look carefully at a webpage, such as an order page, before hitting submit. You may have to first uncheck a box that says you consent to contact from certain telemarketers.
Victim of a scam?
If the scam involves a purchase you made, the unsolicited sale is not final until you've received written confirmation of the sale. Under Washington law, you have three days after you receive your written confirmation to cancel an unsolicited telemarketing sale.
Cancellation notices must be sent by certified mail to the telemarketer's address. If the address is unknown, cancellation must be sent to the Department of Licensing, Business License Services—405 Black Lake Place Blvd SW, Olympia, Washington 98504. Cancellation notices should include your name, address and telephone number.
If you paid with a credit card, there are federal laws that protect you against having to pay for charges on your account when you have not received the ordered service of merchandise. Go to your credit card website to find out how to submit your dispute.
Always report the scam to the Attorney General’s Office. If the scam involves a telephone call or text, use our Scam Reporting Form. Reporting the scam may not get you the money back, but it will help prevent the scammer from hurting others.