Election season has apparently spawned a slick new way for telemarketers to get around the "Do Not Call" registry — hiding a timeshare sales pitch behind a phony political poll, say critics.
With telemarketers barred from robo-calling people on the "Do Not Call" registry, a new phone campaign called "Political Opinions of America" offers a three-question "poll," and then offers a reward that sounds suspiciously like a classic timeshare sales pitch. An automated voice asks the recipient to complete a quick survey with questions like: “What’s the most important thing to restore our economy?” Other questions include: “How would you rate the job that President Obama is doing?”
After answering, the user is transferred to a live operator from “corporate travel services” who is giving away free cruises thanks to an anonymous donor. The offer allows up to four free guests and requires a $60 per person “port fee” to be secured by a credit card.
Critics say it is a scam.
“We believe these companies make unsolicited calls, purportedly as a political opinion poll being conducted by ‘Political Opinions of America,’” says a statement on the website of Shapiro Haber & Ermy, a Boston law firm that is preparing a potential class-action lawsuit against Florida-based The Berkley Group, which is behind the campaign. “Then, one is offered a ‘free’ cruise, which is really designed to expose people to sales pitches for vacation timeshares. If you received such a call, you may have a claim against these companies, whether or not you paid them any money.”
Officials at the law firm say The Berkley Group is in violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry, which bans unsolicited commercial calls to any number contained on the list. Officials at the Federal Trade Commission declined to say if they are investigating the campaign, but the Florida attorney general's office has received dozens of complaints about the phone campaign, said John Lucas, spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
An attorney for Berkley told FoxNews.com that the company is doing nothing illegal.
"Political Opinions of America makes calls on behalf of numerous political entities for the purpose of gauging public opinion on a wide range of issues," attorney Joseph Sanscrainte told FoxNews.com. "Political Opinions of America makes use of incentives for some of its survey programs, whereby the individuals contacted are offered a free service or item as a means to increase survey response rates. Political Opinions of America complies with federal and state rules governing the delivery of such calls."
Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the national Do Not Call Registry, said consumers who receive these types of calls should file a complaint at donotcall.gov or by calling (888) 382-1222.
“Businesses have to get your written permission before they can legally send you pre-recorded messages, even if your number is on the National Do Not Call Registry, and even if they have an established business relationship with you,” Dorman wrote FoxNews.com in an email. “If you get a robocall from a company that hasn’t gotten your written permission first, it’s a scam, since no legal business wants to break the law and risk having to pay penalties of up to $16,000 per call.”
Meanwhile, FTC officials said to remember that if the purpose of the call is to sell something, its telemarketing and all rules apply. Simply adding a few questions about unrelated topics such as politics or weather does not constitute a bona fide survey. At least two similar “sham survey” ruses have resulted in enforcement actions against companies for such illegal calls.
In 2011, the Department of Justice filed a complaint that charged three Utah-based firms for deceptive and illegal telemarketing strategies while pitching movies and soliciting donations, including calls to more than 16 million phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.
Using the name “Kids First,” the nationwide campaign offered to send two complimentary DVDs and requested feedback on whether the movies should be included on a list of recommended movies. The defendants, however, did not disclose that consumers who participated would later receive calls pitching other DVDs.
Five years earlier, in 2006, the Department of Justice also charged a marketer of adjustable beds for allegedly making at least 900,000 unlawful calls since late 2003. FMFG, Inc., which also did business as American Adjustable Beds, allegedly called consumers asking to take a survey of their sleep habits and then made a sales pitch and tried to schedule presentations in their homes.
“This should be a warning to all telemarketers,” FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Lydia Parnes said in a statement at the time. “You can’t evade the Do Not Call Rule by disguising sales calls as surveys.”