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Behind Those 'Extended Auto Warranties' Robocalls

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, have you gotten one of these calls lately?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSIE: Hi, this is Susie (ph) calling with the vehicle service department.

KELLY: If it seems like Susie is calling you all the time, that's because she is. The Federal Communications Commission says that for the past year, calls like this are the No. 1 robocall. Amanda Aronczyk of our Planet Money podcast looked into where these calls and the companies behind them came from.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: Robocalls about your car's warranty actually started with companies that were doing a real thing. And the biggest and baddest of these companies started back in 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Stay tuned to learn how you can save thousands of dollars on car repairs with an extended warranty from US Fidelis.

ARONCZYK: For a monthly fee, they promised to cover your car bumper to bumper. Technically, by the way, they weren't even selling warranties because only the manufacturer of a product can sell a warranty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE WARFIELD: These guys did many things, but they didn't manufacture cars.

ARONCZYK: Dave Warfield is a lawyer who did a lot of work on a US Fidelis case. He says what US Fidelis was selling were vehicle service contracts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WARFIELD: The contracts that they issued were completely legal. They were just marketed in a very deceptive way. And at the end of the day, they didn't cover a whole lot.

ARONCZYK: Let's say you bought one of these contracts. You take your car to the shop. You think you have coverage, but somewhere buried in the fine print is a clause that exempts US Fidelis from paying for that repair. So you decide this is lousy coverage, and you try to cancel it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WARFIELD: They had a routine where you would have to talk to several people to cancel. And after the sixth or seventh person, then they purposely cut off the call and made you come back again.

ARONCZYK: They did everything they could to keep customers from canceling their contracts. For a while, US Fidelis was doing very well. One of the owners spent $26 million building a mansion with a bowling alley and all these secret rooms and this weird walkthrough shower that was kind of like a car wash for your body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WARFIELD: I remember the leather floors in the library.

ARONCZYK: I have so many questions about just the leather floors (laughter).

WARFIELD: Right. So here's a fun fact. Leather floors scuff. So it really wasn't that good of an idea, as it turns out (laughter).

ARONCZYK: But by around 2007, 2008, there were more and more customer complaints and, even though it was hard to do, more and more canceled contracts. So US Fidelis decided on a new way to promote the business - robocalls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WARFIELD: They did, by one estimate, a billion robocalls.

ARONCZYK: A billion robocalls in just 10 months. There were so many complaints that over 40 states went after them. US Fidelis was banned from robocalling. And that, plus a ton of negative press, effectively killed the business. And a few months later, US Fidelis went bankrupt.

And that was the end of robocalls about extended auto warranties. Oh, wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Press one now if you wish to extend your...

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: If you are interested in renewing your auto warranty now...

AUTOMATED VOICE #3: Press two to define coverage on your vehicle and be added to our do not call list.

ARONCZYK: It's been 10 years since US Fidelis went bankrupt, and now these auto warranty calls are back with a vengeance. But unlike with US Fidelis, many of these calls do not name the company calling you. So while the federal government tries to figure out who exactly is calling, you will continue to be robocalled and asked about your car's extended warranty. Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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