How many times has any one of us been at work, home, play, or rest and had our cellphones or landlines start ringing or buzzing with what looks like a familiar area code and exchange, only to discover, to our irritation, that it is just another robocall?
The onslaught of annoying and potentially dangerous robocalls has grown worse, reaching an estimated 5.1 billion in November, slightly behind the previous month’s all-time record, according to YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service.
It’s costly. A New York Times article gave an example of a scheme targeting people with Chinese last names. The caller claimed to be from the Chinese consulate and demanded money. In the May article, the New York Police Department cited 21 Chinese immigrants who had lost a total of $2.5 million as of December 2017.
The perpetrators of these calls could be located anywhere in the world, but with the capability of making it seem like they are just around the corner. The technology that enables these calls is relatively cheap, according to reports. The federal Do Not Call List is supposed to help, but as those who continue to get these calls on landlines and cellphones will agree, it’s about as helpful as putting your finger in the dike.
Federal lawmakers and state attorneys general, not to mention the Federal Communications Commission, have launched efforts aimed at stopping illegal robocalls. It’s not working. Much more needs to be done. Engage 21st-century technology to root out bad actors, and juice the fines so they hurt.
This is not just annoying. It can be dangerous. Many people have gotten into the habit of not answering their cellphones or landlines when an unfamiliar number pops up. This practice can put someone in peril.
This is one of those rare bipartisan issues. Both the House and Senate have held hearings, with each chamber passing or introducing legislation aimed at curbing abuses. Federal regulators have stepped in with new rules giving phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.
Former New York State Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood joined a bipartisan coalition of 34 attorneys general calling on the FCC to create new rules to allow telephone service providers to block more illegal robocalls. “All actions across all areas are continuing” under new state Attorney General Letitia James, according to her office.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced just last year that he would push to pass legislation aimed at stopping the “nonstop” robocalls gushing into both cellphones and landlines. He said he would push legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. The bill would force mobile and landline phone companies to offer free call-blocking software to their customers. The Robocop Act may work as a powerful tool for consumers.
Meantime, what to do about those pesky phone calls? Especially the ones that appear local? This tactic is known as “neighborhood spoofing,” in which robocallers use local numbers. It’s a slippery but often effective trick. Your phone rings with what looks like a local phone number. You pick up. The caller at the other end gets you to press 1, which sends you to a timeshare pitch or prompts you to say the word, “yes,” and gets a voice signature that can later be used for nefarious activities, such as authorizing fraudulent charges by telephone.
It’s a new year and one of the many priorities that Albany and Congress must take up is stopping illegal robocalls.