When you call EC Watson’s phone number, you should usually leave a voicemail message, after listening to a brief message from them that ends with a blessing.
The 90-year-old Roanoke resident has to keep her phone off or off the hook because otherwise it’s a nightmare at home. From morning to night, the phone rings every hour or more frequently. The daily blizzard can reach tens, she said.
“They start in the morning around 8:30 and they don’t let up all day,” the retired beautician told me. “Every day. It happens every day.
Most of the calls come from out-of-state telemarketers, many of whom offer Medicare-related insurance products, particularly Medicare Advantage, she said. None of them ever leave a voicemail; Still, the recording is there in his caller ID logs.
Before she started turning her phone off during the day or picking it up, many callers hung up as soon as she answered, Watson added.
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“It’s been going on since before the coronavirus,” she said. “They wanted me to leave Medicare A and B and switch to Medicare Advantage.” (She firmly refused.)
Medicare A+B – or “traditional” Medicare – has been around since the 1960s. It serves about 36 million seniors. Medicare Advantage is a managed care plan — like an HMO — administered by an insurance company to which Medicare pays a flat fee per Medicare Advantage customer.
It was launched in 2003 and has around 32 million subscribers. Seniors are encouraged to choose one of the programs for their health insurance, but they are not necessarily equivalent coverages. (Before choosing one or the other, seniors should seek free advice from the local Office on Aging to find out which plan is best for them.)
“I’m not the only one getting these calls,” Watson said. “People in my congregation are receiving these calls. And no one knows how to stop them.
Watson said that trying to stem the unwanted tide, she phoned Medicare, where a worker promised, “I’ll take your number off the call list.”
She said she reported it to Roanoke City Police and her phone company, Cox Communications as well.
“They said they would help, but the calls continue,” Watson said.
Last week, she turned to yours truly, after I caught her eye with a column titled “Beware of Over-the-Phone Lawyers Selling Medicare Plans.”
Watson called me at the newspaper and left a message. When I called back, I also had to leave her a voicemail, as she keeps her phone off to avoid annoying prompts. Eventually we connected.
She told me she was handicapped by arthritis, but she was not bedridden. It’s not easy for her to move around a lot, though. She said she still drove and told me very proudly that she had NEVER had a ticket since she first got behind the wheel — in 1948! This is an enviable record indeed.
Watson said her husband, who served in the military and later worked for decades in the Veterans Administration, died in 2006. Since then, she has lived on her own, and her landline is her main connection to people. friends, relatives and members of his church.
“I hate picking up the phone,” she said, because it interferes with maintaining those connections. “With everything going on in the world, we need our phone service up and running.”
Until recently, she says, she had an internet connection and an email address. But she cut the internet because it was too expensive to maintain, Watson said.
I suggested she report the calls to the FBI. On Wednesday morning, she did, but a woman told Watson there was nothing the agency could do, Watson said.
On Tuesday, on his behalf, I contacted Medicare, Roanoke Police, Cox Communications, and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. Could they help Watson? Or recommend steps she could take to stop the spam calls?
Spokespeople for Cox, Medicare, and the AG acknowledged my questions. Of these, Cox and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office provided potentially useful information. (Roanoke police responded after the deadline.)
“Our care team is contacting Ms. Watson directly to review the tools we have to help block unwanted robocalls and provide any additional assistance she may need,” said Margaret-Hunter Wade, a spokeswoman for Cox.
The blocking technology is available free of charge to all Cox phone customers, Wade added. Earlier, someone at Cox tried to help Watson implement call blocking, Watson told me. But either the instructions were deficient or Watson misunderstood them.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia attorney general said the agency could not immediately stop the robocalls.
However, Victoria LaCivita added, “There are several agencies that have enforcement authority under federal and state laws with respect to unwanted telemarketing calls and robocalls, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). We encourage consumers to register their home and mobile phone numbers with the National Do Not Call Registry. »
State officials, including the AG’s office, have access to the FTC’s Do Not Call complaints, LaCivita added.
The Medicare website strongly recommends the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry as the #1 step in combating unwanted phone calls.
Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can check if their phone number is already registered with the FTC at donotcall.gov. All that is required is the phone number in question and a working email address.
On Tuesday, I looked up Watson, while talking to her on the phone, because she no longer has internet service. I entered his number along with my own work email address. The database sent me an email saying that Watson’s phone number was not registered.
Another way to get a number on Do Not Call is to call the registry directly from the phone line to be added. The number is 1-888-382-1222. I gave it to Watson, with instructions on how to sign up, and she did on Wednesday.
Now she has to wait 31 days. Any telemarketing calls she receives after that can be reported to the FTC for Do Not Call Registry violations.
It’s not foolproof, however. For one thing, it won’t stop political phone calls, polls, or other types of unsolicited calls.
Meanwhile, some telemarketers spoof (or electronically forge) caller ID numbers to trick recipients into thinking a real agency is calling them. Among the victims is the Roanoke FBI office, according to a voicemail warning on its main phone line at the moment. It was fraudulently impersonated by telemarketing scammers who called people and, posing as agents, tried to shake them off for money.
Nor will the registry stop these offenders.
But at least it may be a start to resolving a problem with seemingly legitimate telemarketers that has plagued Watson for years. We will see.
On Tuesday, she kept her phone off the hook for five hours. During the hours he was back, she received 20 telemarketing calls, she said.
I’ll check back with her after a month, and see how many she gets at that time.