“Hi Marla. This is Nate volunteering with Beto For Texas. Beto O’Rourke is running for Senate to represent Texans statewide, not special interest megadonors. And unlike Ted Cruz, Beto doesn’t take any money from PACs. Can we count on your vote?”
It’s election season and politicians are upping the ante on using technology to reach voters through their phone’s message app. Candidates may think they’re being savvy doing digital stump speeches, but for many consumers, they see it as a privacy breach -- one that may actually work against the candidate.
In Marla’s case, she was aware of Beto O’Rourke, but she’s never donated money to his campaign or given anyone her OK to be contacted by his folks, according to a story in the New York Times.
“It felt like a real invasion,” she said. “My first reaction was, who is this? How do they know my name? And how did they get my cell phone number?,” questioned Marla.
“Many campaigns these days are using tools that personalize these messages in such a way that you're actually talking to a person when you reply, or what they call ‘relational’ organizing, where the text is actually coming from one voter to another,” wrote Greg Cohn, co-founder and CEO of privacy app company Burner, in a message to ConsumerAffairs. “I think these are very interesting hybrids if used effectively.”
The silver lining in the legal cloud
Even though robocalls and robotexts are outlawed under the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), breaking the law isn’t enough of a deterrent to keep candidates away from consumers’ phones, especially with rates as low as a penny-per-dial.
The TCPA spells it out like this:
Political campaign-related autodialed or pre-recorded voice calls (including autodialed live calls, prerecorded voice messages, and text messages) are:
Not allowed to cell phones, pagers, or other mobile devices without the called party's prior express consent.
Not allowed to protected phone lines such as emergency or toll-free lines, or lines serving hospitals or similar facilities, unless made with the called party's prior express consent.
Allowed when made to landline telephones, even without prior express consent.
See anything missing? Well, the brains behind this incursion do. The crease they see is that these “peer-to-peer” (P2P) messages are being sent one after the other, therefore skirting the FCC’s disallowment of “autodialed.”
Old dog, old tricks
Political robo’ing goes back some 30 years, but consumers weren’t tethered to their phones then like they are now.
Politicians going the text message route is a relative new trick dating back to 2012 when ad agencies sent out messages like one saying, “The Obama administration perpetuated misinformation about Libya. Vote against Obama!” and “Obama supports homosexuality and its radical social agenda. Say No to Obama on Nov 6!”
However, none of the messages contained a disclaimer with who paid and was responsible for the messages.
“People did not opt-in to receive these messages and ultimately end up having to pay the cost for this unwanted misinformation that appeared on their mobile phone.”
Isn’t there anything that can be done about this?
Despite the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FCC’s best attempts, putting a kibosh on robo messaging has yet to be met with surrender. And the number of times consumers’ phones get hit with a robo-something has spun out of control, but not necessarily to the marketer’s advantage.
“Robocalls to voters are now becoming less and less useful – given they’re getting swamped out by scammers and other unwanted robocalls, and consumers simply ignore unknown numbers,” YouMail CEO Alex Quilici commented to ConsumerAffairs.
Burner’s Cohn added that there is a weapon that consumers can use but may have forgotten about.
“Robotexts are absolutely more manageable than robocalls. With texts, as long as they're opt-in or can be reasonably expected based on your support of a candidate in the past for example, they're not as annoying. You can typically opt out of them by replying STOP, or easily just ignore them,” Cohn said.
If this political breach has affected you and you want to voice your complaint, you have a couple of options. The FCC has its own consumer complaint center, and there’s also PocketSpammers, a platform dedicated to the eradication of political text message spam. The site collects consumer complaints and turns them over to the FCC.
If you’re thinking you’d rather turn in a politician to the U.S. National Do Not Call Registry, don’t even waste your time. Interestingly enough, political robocalls are exempt from that list.