Thursday, January 9, 2020

A new weapon in the war on robocalls -- Jan. 9, 2020 column


We’ve stopped answering the phone.

I’m not using the royal or editorial we. I mean we Americans.

The flood of robocalls, automatically dialed calls with recorded messages from telemarketers and scammers, has made us angry and afraid of our own phones.

About 70% of U.S. consumers won’t answer the phone if they don’t recognize a caller’s number, a survey by Consumer Reports found. I’m among that 70% and with the 62% who let most calls go to voicemail.

There’s good reason for not wanting to engage with unknown callers. One study estimated nearly half of all calls to mobile phones in 2019 were scam calls.

And yet, policing robocars is complicated. We rely on legitimate robocalls from the pharmacy that says our prescription is ready, from schools that close because of bad weather, from banks that issue fraud alerts, and companies notifying us of safety recalls, a House report said.

But “the same characteristics that make (legitimate) robocalls appealing to businesses also make them appealing to scammers. Those seeking to defraud consumers can do so efficiently and cost-effectively using robocalls maximizing their ill-gotten gains,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Americans received an astonishing 58.5 billion robocalls last year, or 178.3 calls per person affected, according to YouMail, a call blocking service. That was up from an estimated 48 billion robocalls in 2018, the service said.

The deluge of calls swamps even members of Congress. Maybe that’s why they finally did something.

Congress passed and President Trump signed Dec. 30 the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, the TRACED Act for short. 

In a rare moment of bipartisanship on one of the more acrimonious days ever, the House passed the bill 417 to 3, the same day the House Judiciary Committee opened its impeachment hearing of Trump. The few no votes were from libertarian-leaning members who fear giving the government too much power.

The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote Dec. 19, after voting 97 to 1 for its version in May. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, Democrats of Virginia, were cosponsors.

In a humorous video last month, Warner shows the frustration of frequent interruptions by robocalls while he’s trying to work.

“As a tech guy who founded the wireless company Nextel, I’m a big fan of cell phones. But what I’m not a fan of is those annoying robocalls we all seem to be getting these days – yes, even U.S. senators,” Warner says.

But, he said, help is on the way with the TRACED Act.

The new law should speed efforts by phone companies to offer consumers free tools to identify and block robocalls before they reach our phones. It sets tough criminal penalties and directs government agencies to work together to crack down on scammers. Previously, scammers viewed getting caught and paying civil penalties the cost of doing business.

The law also targets the so-called One Ring Scam, a scheme in which scammers place a call from a fake number and let it ring once, enticing the consumer to call back and incur the high cost of dialing a foreign country. New regulations are being written to help protect consumers from the scam.

All this should help knock down the volume of annoying calls but won’t end them. Cheap, easy calling over the Internet makes robocalls from around the world almost impossible to stop, and scammers fleece gullible consumers out of millions of dollars.

Plus, technology to block calls before they reach us doesn't work for home phones connected to old school copper landlines, the Associated Press reported, adding the law directs the Federal Communications Commission and phone companies to come with alternatives for those customers.

The TRACED Act is a good start. I won't start answering my phones anytime soon, though, and you may not want to either. At least we're facing the scourge of robocalls together -- and we're getting help from Washington.

Sen. Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, a sponsor of the bill, had it right when he said, "There are no blue robocalls; there are no red robocalls -- only despised robocalls."

(C) 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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