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Schumer backs 'Robocop' bill to help curtail unwanted robocalls

WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer Wednesday announced a push to pass legislation aimed at stopping the nonstop robocalls that flood cellphones and landlines alike these days. It comes as one sign Congress is starting to take the issue of unwanted – and often fraudulent – phone calls seriously.

Schumer said he would push legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, that would force mobile and landline phone companies to offer free call-blocking software to their customers.

"Robocalls are one of the things that annoy Americans the most, and the ROBOCOP Act will finally help put a rest to these dreaded calls that are flooding our cellphones, interrupting family dinners or even scamming people out their hard-earned money,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat.

Blumenthal introduced that bill last month, as did Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat. And while no Republicans have signed onto the bill as of yet, there are growing signs that both political parties are increasingly worried about the issue.

Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill convened hearings last month to examine the robocall epidemic.

"We're here to address an issue that I'm sure we can all agree on: unwanted, abusive and illegal robocalls have got to stop," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a North Dakota Republican, said as he convened that panel's hearing on the topic.

Schumer, in a conference call with reporters, acknowledged it's not an easy problem to fix. A decade ago, he was a driving force behind a bill that created a "do not call" registry that, for a while at least, seemed to keep robocalls in check.

But now, things seem to be spinning out of control. YouMail, a telecommunications firm that tries to fight robocalling, said Americans suffered through more robocalls than ever in April: 3.36 billion of them, up 6.5 percent since March.

The Federal Communications Commission and phone companies have tried to crack down on robocalls, to little avail, Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, said last week.

"Preventing robocalls is extremely challenging because the current technology makes it quite easy and inexpensive to spoof real phone lines and crank out millions of unwanted calls," Quilici said.

Schumer made that same point in his call with reporters. He noted that "spoofing" allows robocallers to hide their real numbers, and added that many of the calls now come from overseas.

Technology exists to block robocalls, and Time Warner made that technology easily available to its phone customers in 2016. But other phone service providers have not done so, meaning that people have to seek out that technology on their own, if they even know it exists.

Schumer said such call-blocking apps work.

"It works much like an email spam box because it filters out the robocalls and other unwanted calls," Schumer said.

In addition to the ROBOCOP Act, Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, has introduced a bill that would make it easier for the FCC to prosecute cases against robocallers.

So far, though, Republicans – who are typically wary about passing new federal regulations – are just in the exploratory phase of whether legislation is needed and what it should look like.

"There is no singular solution to solve the problem of unwanted calls, but we owe it to our constituents to present all the options available," Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during a subcommittee's hearing on the matter last month.

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