Hanging up on robocalls

Newsday on robocalls

June 8

The calls come during dinner. During the workday. Even in the middle of the night.

They veer from annoying and laughable to frightening and dangerous.

Sometimes, they’re offering debt reduction, solar panels or a free trip. Sometimes, they’re in Mandarin. Other times, they’re allegedly urgent calls from the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. The truly despicable ones claim someone you love is in trouble.

They have to stop.

The Federal Communications Commission voted last week to allow phone companies to block such calls by default, without getting customer permission, though the new rule will include an opt-out provision for customers who don’t want such calls blocked. Phone companies can choose whether to participate. They also can decide to charge for the service, which would be unfortunate. But the FCC’s move is a start.

Robocalls have become so ubiquitous that it’s surprising when you go a day without getting one. Those who have landlines often don’t answer any calls. On cellphones, the scammers use area codes and locations similar to others that you answer. While the calls are hated for how irritating they are, the bigger concern is just how easily and how often they work, and how many seniors and others fall prey to scams and schemes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. consumers lost $55 million just to tech support-related scams last year.

According to Sen. Chuck Schumer, a stunning 34.8 million robocalls were received in Long Island area codes in April alone. That’s more than a million calls a day. The FCC says about 60 percent of the complaints it receives are about robocalls. By some estimates, more than half of robocalls are scams.

For years, there’s been talk about how to combat the calls, but, disappointingly, there‘s been little action. Schumer and others have pushed for change, but federal efforts have failed to make a difference. The National Do Not Call registry has been ignored by scammers, and penalties on robocallers who have been caught haven’t been sufficient.

The FTC and the FCC set regulations on this issue. Now, Congress and both agencies seem close to finding viable solutions. The U.S. Senate last month passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED). The bill, sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and South Dakota Republican John Thune, would give the FCC more power to fine robocallers, as much as $10,000 per call, and would add to the timeframe between when a call is placed and when the FCC can find and prosecute such scammers. Perhaps most important, the legislation would require telecommunications firms to establish technology that authenticates which calls are real and which are robocalls or scams, and to stop them before they reach a customer.

Fighting robocalls might just be the one issue nowadays that could be truly bipartisan. The TRACED legislation passed the Senate 97-1, with Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) as the sole holdout. Perhaps Paul doesn’t own a telephone?

Now it’s on to the House of Representatives, which should pass the bill, too. We hope President Donald Trump will sign it.

But that won’t be enough. The FCC’s new rule should help, too. It also will allow consumers to decide whether to get calls only from contacts that they specify.

Questions on how to execute the FCC’s proposed filters remain. Regulators will have to work with the phone companies to make sure filters are flexible, so wanted robocalls — like a school closing or a fraud alert from a credit card company — get through. They’ll also have to be aware of whether phone companies start to charge for the service, and, if they do, consider mandating that it be free of charge.

Federal officials and advocates also must educate seniors and others who are vulnerable to falling for fraud, while aggressively pursuing and penalizing the scammers.

Despite the progress that’s being made, however, we’re not convinced the FCC’s own leadership is fully committed to ridding consumers of this plague. Sometimes, it appears to kowtow to the industries that benefit from lax regulations. Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly told an industry group representing debt collectors this month that “Robocall is not a bad word,” and argued that federal officials should “stop vilifying automated calls.”

Most consumers would say otherwise.

The scourge of robocalls will end only when telecommunications companies, federal regulators and lawmakers get ahead of the robocallers with technology and regulation, and a constant pursuit of scammers.

It’s time to hang up on robocalls.

By Patricia Older

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