Robocalls about your bills can pour in every day, all day

robots call center
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IN THE CAR WHERE Paula Hanson lives, often parked outside a local sheriff's station in Lancaster, California, her phone wouldn't stop ringing.

Hanson tried to explain to the employees at Discover Bank all that had happened to her. First, she had been laid off from her job, and then her father fell ill and she moved into his house to take care of him. Shortly after he died, last year, Hanson, 62, became homeless. She simply didn't have the money to tackle the $17,000 in credit card debt she owed Discover.

Still, the calls continued: "At first, it was once a day," Hanson said, "but then they began to become, like, three times a day." Eventually, her lawyer said, the bank was ringing her five times a day.

In an effort to end the calls, Hanson agreed at one point to make a onetime payment of $50 to Discover, though she had less than $200 in her bank account.

"I have to make sure I have money to eat," she said, "but the way they pressure you — they make you feel like you have to do this."

MORE THAN A QUARTER of consumers currently receive automated calls about past-due bills, according to data provided to CNBC by YouMail, a robocall-blocking service. For many, the calls are relentless. "Some people get hundreds of calls in a single month about a late payment or debt," said Alex Quilici, chief executive of YouMail.

People often associate the flood of robocalls with scammers. Yet on one ranking this year of robocallers by volume, 8 out of the top 10 were seeking a late payment (although that list doesn't account for when companies deploy many different phone numbers to reach people).

COMPANIES USE autodialers to collect their debts because they're cheap and easy to use, said Jeff Hansen, an information technology expert. When he worked at a calling center, Hansen said, they were dialing more than 1 million people an hour for less than a penny per call.

But the way technology works makes it difficult for consumers to stop the calls, he said.

"You get 10 calls in one day, and on the first call you say, 'I don't have the money. Stop calling,' but these automated procedures keep people out of the loop," he said. "The dialer has been loaded for the whole day, and so it's going to keep calling you."

Employees at Discover come up with the right strategy for each individual who is struggling to make their payments, said Derek Cuculich, senior manager of public relations at the company. "We determine their situation and work with them to find a solution to help them through tough times," Cuculich said.

TONYA STEVENS BOUGHT a few items, including a washer and dryer, back in 2014 from Conn's HomePlus, a furniture store chain headquartered in Texas.

She said she made many of her monthly payments, but sent them in later than the store wanted. Employees of Conn's called her morning, noon and night, Stevens, 49, said. "I was getting anywhere from five to 11 calls a day," she said.

Stevens was pushed over the edge, she said, when she was tending to her dying grandmother. "I called them screaming, bawling, 'Let me bury my grandmother,'" she said.

All together, Conn's called her more than 1,800 times, according to her lawyer.

"As standard operating procedure, our team follows all applicable statutes and regulations, only calling customers that have an outstanding debt," said Ivette Faulkner, a spokeswoman for Conn's. "Once a payment is arranged, we discontinue customer calls."

Finding themselves under President Donald Trump's "industry-friendly" administration, companies are ramping up their debt collection calls, said Billy Peerce Howard, a lawyer at the The Consumer Protection Firm in Tampa, Florida. "The consumers that call my office and complain about harassment have doubled literally overnight from when Trump was elected," Howard said.

And they could soon pick up even more.

The Federal Communications Commission is in the process of deciding the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which bans companies from autodialing people's cellphones without their permission. Consumer advocates worry the rule will be so thin that most businesses can operate outside of it.

"If the FCC comes out with a definition as requested by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and all of the other callers, then all of those calls that are made from those automated systems won't be covered and we won't be able to stop them," said Margot Saunders, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. "It'll be far worse than today."

Will Wiquist, a spokesman for the FCC, said the current Commission has taken more steps to put an end to illegal robocalls than any other before it. "[W]e will continue to combat all illegal robocalls with every tool we have," he said.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai

BUSINESSES ARGUE THAT THEY NEED to be able to contact their past-due consumers without facing "frivolous" lawsuits under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. "Making sure debts are collected are important for the fundamentals of our economy," said Harold Kim, chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform.

The calls also protect consumers, Kim said, often preventing home foreclosures and car repossessions.

For the many Americans in precarious financial situations today, it's easy to fall behind on a bill, said Ira Rheingold, the executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. "We're living in an economy where people don't have a lot of savings and are dependent on credit to buy things," Rheingold said.

The repeated calls worsen their circumstances, he said, forcing them to pay their bills "out of order." For example, a person might relent to a caller and pay off a credit card bill and then not be able to send in their next rent check.

"It's not a good financial plan to pay the people who bother you the most," Rheingold said. "You need to prioritize those debts based on your needs."

PEOPLE ALSO DESCRIBE a psychological price to these calls. Karl — who asked to use his first name only to protect his privacy— bought his fiance an engagement ring for around $2,500 at a Sterling Jewelers location in Florida in 2015.

Shortly after, his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and Karl took a leave from his job to visit him in New York. His employer didn't offer paid time off, and Karl soon fell behind on his debts, including his $120 monthly bill for the ring.

The calls from Sterling Jewelry began almost immediately, he said.

"There were times when they called me nine or 10 times a day," Karl, 36, said. "I told them what was going on, and the calls still came." According to Karl's lawyer, the company called him more than 1,300 times.

"It makes you feel like less of a person," he said.

David Bouffard, vice president of corporate affairs at Signet, the global parent company of Sterling Jewelers, said its policies are designed to make sure customers are treated with respect and fairness.

"We comply with our legal and ethical obligations," Bouffard said.

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