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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Goodbye to Rachel From Cardholder Services

So long, Rachel. I certainly won't miss you or your annoying phone calls from “Cardholder Services.”

The Federal Trade Commission recently acted to shut down five “robocalling” firms in Arizona and Florida that it says are responsible for millions of illegal telemarketing calls, including the familiar pre-recorded messages from “Rachel.”

“At the F.T.C., Rachel from Cardholder Services is public enemy No. 1,” Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the F.T.C., said in a statement.

(Actually, Rachel is a voice recorded years ago and recycled by various firms, according to a New York Times story from June.)

Federal courts granted the agency's request to temporarily halt the operations of the five firms. The agency asserted that they tricked consumers into paying hundreds of thousands of dollars by making phony claims that they could reduce credit card interest rates in return for a fee - sometimes as high as $3,000 - paid up front.

I admit I wasn't aware of what exactly Rachel was pitching, since if I immediately hung up when I heard her greeting. But many other consumers apparently listened, and even pressed a number to hear more from a live person.

After the telemarketer “approved” the consumers for a “program” to get rates as low as 0 percent, according to the F.T.C., the telemarketer informed them that there was an upfront fee, ranging from several hundred dollars to nearly $3,000. To persuade consumers to pay the fee, the F.T.C. said, telemarketers would often say that it would be more than offset by the money the consumer would save through the program.

In some cases, the F.T.C. asserted, consumers' credit cards were charged, even if they didn't agree to pay for the service. In other cases, the F.T.C. contended, the telemarketers did not disclose a fee at all, or claimed there would be no fee.

After consumers paid the fee, the F.T.C. alleged, they typic ally found - surprise, surprise! - that the companies did little or nothing to lower their credit card interest rates. And they often reneged on promises to refund the fees.

The F.T.C. is trying to crack down on robocalling, and is even offering cash prizes for proposals for innovative technology  to curtail the practice. (Some robocalls, like those from political candidates or charities seeking donations, are allowed, the F.T.C. says. But if the recording is a sales pitch, and you haven't given written permission to get the calls, it's illegal - and most likely a scheme.)

The agency also provided tips on what to do if you get unwanted automated telemarketing calls. Hanging up is at the top of the list.

Did you ever hear from Rachel? Did you end up getting charged a fee?