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National Politics

Politics lurking in your cellphone

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:36 PM

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TAMPA -

For years, political campaigns have made millions of automatic, pre-recorded calls to the home phones of America, imploring people to vote this way or that.

Now, with the campaign for president and Senate topping a full Nov. 5 ballot, those calls are starting to ring up cellphones, too.

Here's the bad news if you're burning with frustration over the cellular minutes you just lost listening to a political pitch: The calls aren't going to stop.

Go ahead and sign up on the Do Not Call Registry, but it won't help. Cellphones are the new frontier for political "robo-calling," and politicians work the system to make as many of these cheap and easy contacts as they like.

Sadly, for owners of smart phone, most aren't smart enough to block the calls.

"Nothing is going to prevent a candidate from calling your number, even if that happens to be a cell number," said Shaun Dakin, a Washington-based privacy advocate and founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry.

A number of politicians have used Dakin's list to avoid annoying voters, Dakin said.

Not one of them is in Florida.

Last week, the CTIA cellular industry group complained to federal regulators about politicians buzzing cellphones.

"Some consumers have reported receiving unwanted text messages in the middle of the night, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.," the CTIA wrote in a letter to regulators, asking them to warn campaigns about the rules.

 

* * * * *

There are efforts afoot at the Federal Communications Commission to address the practice, but there are complicated reasons that give the upper hand to those campaigning for office.

 

First, one-third of Americans have dropped their home phone line and only use a cellphone. That means their cell number is the only one to give places such as charities or other nonprofits that may share numbers with political candidates.

Florida's voter registration forms have a line asking people to write in their phone numbers — cellular or not. It's optional, but that information automatically becomes public and available to political parties.

If you ever volunteer for a political campaign, fill out an online donation form or provide information on a sheet at a rally, you probably included your cell number and you probably created what's called a "pre-existing relationship."

This allows campaigns to make as many calls to you as they wish.

There are some rules to protect you, Dakin said, but most campaigns don't bother learning them.

"Ninety-nine percent of campaigns are not sophisticated," he said.

Perhaps presidential campaigns will sift their databases to discern home phone from cellphone numbers. But most don't.

"They buy a list of numbers from someone or give a check to a political consultant, and they just spray them all."

The campaigns for Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney didn't return messages asking about their phone-bank procedures.

Another loophole that lets politicians call cellphones or send repeated text messages is the "auto-dial" caveat.

Theoretically, federal rules require the pre-existing relationship before a computer can automatically dial a cellphone number — say, your credit card company warning of a problem with your account.

But modern campaigns have ways around this rule.

Democrat and Republican campaigns can enlist volunteers to make calls. The volunteer simply signs up online and the campaign provides a list of phone numbers or even makes the connection between the caller and the recipient.

In the eyes of the law, it's just one person calling another person.

 

* * * * *

But what about the "Do Not Call Registry? The system was established for home phone lines to give people a way to opt out of unsolicited sales calls to their home. Even here, though, politicians have caveats to exploit.

 

The biggest is this: Nonprofit groups, survey companies and political campaigns are exempt from the registry. And a campaign may have no way to determine that the number they're dialing is a cellphone.

Even you were a motivated citizen wishing to file a complaint, you would need to identify who made the call: a candidate, a political action committee, a SuperPAC, a nonprofit.

Modern caller-ID blocking can make this impossible because the cellphone screen may appear blank or display "Unavailable."

Because campaigns and elections have a short lifespan, the potential for discovery and fine is little deterrent. By the time a penalty is imposed, Election Day may have come and gone.

To hold offenders accountable, the CTIA is asking federal regulators to formally give notice to campaigns that they must follow the rules with calling or texting cellphones.

 

BLOCKING CALLS FROM POLS

How can you fight back against political calls to your cell phone? Some steps to try:

iPhones have no easy way to block incoming calls. There are apps in the iTunes store such as TrapCall, though the few reviews online are not complimentary.

If you're willing to "jailbreak" the phone and void the warranty, Christopher Breen of Macworld notes iBlacklist for $12 can block a list of numbers, approve "white lists" of callers, or block unknown calls during specific times, like at night.

Droid-based phones have more options. Extreme Call Blocker for $5.99, BlackList Pro for $2.99 and both Call Block and PrivacyStar are free.

BlackBerry owners can use PrivacyStar for free, Privacy Manager for $7.99 and Call Blocker for $4.99.

AT&T customers can try to use AT&T's parental controls to block up to 30 phone numbers for $5 per month, though customers need to know phone numbers to block.

Verizon officials suggest a novel approach: Buy a ring-back tone. Normally, ring-backs cost about a dollar and play music for the caller instead of "ring, ring, ring."

A computer making robo-calls is waiting to hear a human voice say, "Hello," said Verizon spokesman Chuck Hamby.

"But if the computer hears music, it's likely to just hang up," he said.


rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919

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