Remember the days before robocalls? When your landline and cell phone were free from scam artists selling something, threatening you with arrest, wheedling to extract a credit-card number?
Nah, we can't either. The number of unwanted calls in the U.S. is measured in the tens of billions each year. The Federal Communications Commission, citing private analyses, says American consumers were hit with almost 4 billion robocalls a month in 2018.
Still, there is cause for skeptical optimism on this front, even though the odds seemed perpetually stacked in favor of scammers who've perfected the art of the auto-dial.
In July the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the Stop Bad Robocalls Act, which would require telecom companies to step up enforcement and give consumers more ways to insulate themselves. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., coasted through on a 429-3 vote. It's now before the Senate.
A week ago a group of state attorneys general — including Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gurbir Grewal of New Jersey — announced an agreement they'd reached with the 12 largest phone service providers. The companies, including Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile and AT&T, signed on to offer free call-blocking services to customers. They agreed to keep a closer watch on robocalls and help authorities identify and track phone scammers.
The Federal Trade Commission is stepping up enforcement. Working with federal, state and local investigators, the FTC recently announced charges against three firms and one individual believed to be responsible for more than 1 billion illegal spam calls.
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While this qualifies as a start, there's more to be done. Not all robocalls and phone solicitations are illegal, but the system has been gamed by those who have mastered easy-to-use technology, often operating from safe havens overseas.
The best hope rests with the industry — with government oversight to check on compliance. Several companies have taken steps to install an anti-"spoofing" technology called STIR/SHAKEN, which allows consumers with caller ID to know if an incoming calls is bona fide or a spammer using a local or familiar number.
And there are call-blocking apps that can be downloaded, some for free.
State and federal "Do Not Call" registries are still accepting numbers and trying to help, but we know from experience they don't provide anything close to a firewall. People can still report robocalls to the feds at ftc.gov/calls.
We need a unified effort — government, industry and individual — to make a dent in the extortion-by-phone business. No one is expecting total peace and quiet, but we should be able to "weaponize" the consumer, to help neutralize the criminal on the other end of the line. Seeing some of the worst offenders talking to themselves in prison would be rewarding, too.
-- Easton (Pennsylvania) Express-Times