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When Did the Do Not Call List Stop Working?

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There was once a time when picking up a call from an unfamiliar number didn’t guarantee you’d be talking to a robot. For several years following its introduction in 2003, the Do Not Call list successfully sheltered individuals from unwanted calls about gym memberships and cheap travel packages. Companies respected the list, and if they didn’t, they faced legal ramifications.

Then, at the turn of the decade, something changed. Telemarketing scams began trickling through the cracks, and today the Do Not Call list is about as effective as a free cruise offered over the phone is free.

So what happened? It may not be evident to current members, but the National Do Not Call Registry does work—with some numbers, at least. According to the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act, telemarketers (excluding surveyors, politicians, and charities) can be fined up to $40,000 for ignoring the list. So when it comes to calls from legitimate, law-abiding businesses within the U.S., the Do Not Call list is a useful barrier. Problems arise when callers never intend to follow the law in the first place.

Around 2010, the same time the internet made international calls a lot less expensive, phone scammers began relocating outside the U.S. Whether they’re calling from India or Jamaica, voice over internet protocol technology makes spamming numbers with prerecorded messages cheap and easy. Another trick, known as "call spoofing," allows frauds to input fake caller IDs to make it seem like they’re calling from within the country. Some telemarketers even go so far as to call from the recipient’s home area code, leading the person on the receiving end to think it’s someone they know.

“It’s difficult to identify who’s actually placing the call because of the call spoofing,” Maureen Mahoney, a public policy fellow for Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign, tells Mental Floss. “So that also makes it difficult to track these people down.” Even when authorities do catch up to operations working in foreign countries, most of the money scammed from consumers has already been spent. It’s no wonder that the U.S. loses billions of dollars to scam calls each year.

Phone owners are well aware of the problem. “We actually sent out an email to our list asking what’s one of the issues you’re most concerned about, and overwhelmingly the response was robocalls,” Mahoney says. Consumers Union took action by launching their campaign to end robocalls in 2015. Instead of going after lawmakers, who often receive the brunt of the public’s blame, the initiative targets phone companies. A petition on the organization's website calls on phone company CEOs to “provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach my phone.”

“We really believe that the phone companies are in the best position to address the problem,” Mahoney says. “They’re the ones with the best engineers and the technology and the know-how.” Some industry leaders have taken steps to tackle the issue. Time Warner customers have the option to sign up for Nomorobo, a service that blocks illegal robocalls, for free. AT&T made a similar option available for select devices in December, and T-Mobile rolled out a robocall-blocking feature of its own in April. But there are still many companies that have no such resources available, or only offer them at an additional cost.

If electing to block robocalls through your service provider is impossible or impractical for you, there are other ways to protect yourself. When an unknown number lights up your screen, don’t pick up. Sometimes a “hello?” is all the information telemarketers need to confirm you’re a living human being who is worth calling again. If you do decide to answer, don’t be afraid to hang up as soon as things start feeling fishy. Staying on the phone gives scammers more opportunities to squeeze information from you, so even asking to be taken off their list is more trouble than it’s worth.

One of the most notorious scams to look out for today is the IRS phone scam. To trick their victims, callers (sometimes calling from a bogus Washington D.C. area code) will say they work for the IRS and demand to be paid immediately. Americans have been cheated out of tens of millions of dollars as a result of this scheme.

Mahoney also warns consumers to be wary of calls claiming to come from card services (“We can offer you a lower interest rate!”), tech support (“We can fix your computer!”), and even your phone company (“You need to pay your bills! Could we have your card information?”). Even if you suspect the call's legitimate, it's always best to end the conversation and call back using a number you trust. “If someone’s asking for your personal or financial information, hang up the phone right away,” Mahoney says. “Report it to the FCC.” You can contact the Federal Communications Commission with your complaints here.

We already know that the Do Not Call Registry alone isn’t enough to keep telemarketers at bay, but it doesn’t hurt to keep your name on the list—even if all it does is cut down the amount of robo-harassment you receive each week by a call or two.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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