There we were, driving along in our 2012 Chevrolet Sonic test car, when it spoke to us.
"You have an incoming call," it said. Which was startling, since our prehistoric, coal-powered mobile phone is incapable of pairing with anything beyond a headset.
Ah, yes, right, it's the built-in OnStar system.
But by the time we located the steering-wheel button, it was too late. So we called OnStar, to find out if the service had called us to warn about something in the car.
Nope, said the pleasant operator, we didn't call your car. Puzzling.
The culprit: Consumer USA
Five minutes later, we had another incoming call. This time, we pressed the button, and got ... a robocall.
A perky but insistent female voice from "Consumer USA" urged us to call an 866 number immediately for help reorganizing our finances. A little research indicates the caller may have been Santander Consumer USA.
We did what we always did with robocalls, and hit the disconnect button.
But we started to wonder: Is this a common problem?
Robocalls in cars not only add to driver distraction, they cost consumers money. OnStar requires users to prepay for packages of minutes used in both inbound and outbound calls over the car's built-in mobile phone.
Operators will credit minutes
OnStar's Adam Denison said consumers who get robocalls via OnStar should call the operator and get credit for any minutes used by unwanted incoming calls. And, he said, if the problem recurs, it's easy for OnStar to change your car's "telephone number" to a different one.
But owners are responsible for adding a car's OnStar telephone number to the National Do-Not-Call Registry. The phone number in the car, OnStar says, belongs not to the company but to the customer who buys (or leases) it.
OnStar doesn't block any incoming calls, said Terry Inch, its director of subscriber services. That's because consumers may give out the number to friends or other callers they need to communicate with.
Only "handfuls" of verified complaints a month
And Inch says OnStar gets few complaints about robocalls.
Its Customer Care group receives 4 million calls a month from 6 million subscribers (out of 15 million OnStar-equipped vehicles). Of those, he said, only 1 percent--or about 40,000--end up generating a customer-care "ticket" requiring further investigation.
Each month, the number of those inquiries about possible robocalls is only in the "dozens," said Inch. Because only 1 out of 7 customers provides enough information to take further action, the number of verified robocall complaints monthly is in the "handfuls".
Angry teen driverEnlarge Photo
"The sanctity of the cockpit"
Still, OnStar takes robocalls seriously, Inch said. "We work hand-in-hand with Verizon to deal with violators of the sanctity of the cockpit," he said. "When we can ID a robocall, we'll go back and get the facts and data, and chase them down."
OnStar and Verizon took joint legal action against one insistent robocaller, he said, a credit and collections agency. OnStar's legal department refused to provide any information about that case: neither the juridiction nor the company it sued.
But that example may be far from the only such case. In June 2009, OnStar joined a Verizon suit against robocallers selling extended auto warranties.
Separately, telemarketers selling health-care product memberships are seeking dismissal of a different suit filed by Verizon and OnStar, saying the two companies have no standing--and are not harmed by the practice.