For millions of Americans, robocalls are an annoyance. For some, they are a tragedy, resulting in lost life savings or even the loss of life.
As lawmakers struggle to find ways to curb robocalls, there is a bit of good news.
Last month, a dozen major telecommunications companies agreed to begin using new technology to detect and block spam calls. The work comes as part of an agreement between the industry and 51 attorneys general to decrease robocalls.
Under the agreement, the 12 carriers have agreed to implement call-blocking technology and to make anti-robocall tools available for free to customers. There is no timetable for these changes. They also agreed to make more information available to the attorneys general to help them take action against illegal robocalls.
Because of the scope of the problem, it is likely to be more fruitful to encourage companies to follow a “moral compass,” as the agreement with the attorneys general does, rather than putting more effort into costly and slow enforcement actions, said telecommunications consultant David Frankel.
Robocalls are an increasing menace. Nearly 50 billion such calls were made last year and spam calls are expected to account for half of all mobile calls by the end of this year. Last year, Mainers received 93 million robocalls, according to Sen. Susan Collins, who has led hearings on the problem as chair of the Senate Committee on Aging.
At a July committee hearing, Angela Stancik of Texas told lawmakers of her grandmother’s long history with scam phone calls. In her last phone call with Stancik, her grandmother desperately asked for $6,000. Her grandmother died by suicide days later. Her family found that she had only $69 in her bank account. They also found bags of wire transfer receipts.
Her grandmother ended her life, Stancik told the committee, “because these fraudsters preyed on her and on her good heart. Her golden years and the last chapter of her life was taken from her.”
“She was robbed in every sense,” she told committee members. Frankel also testified at the July hearing.
Many forms of robocalls — such as calls to American who are on the federal Do Not Call registry and automatic voice calls to cell phones — are already illegal. But the companies that originate such calls don’t care, Frankel told the Bangor Daily News.
The calls often go through several different providers before ending up on the network of a large carrier such as Verizon or AT&T, which routes the call to customer phones. Stopping the calls with the originating provider is much easier than weeding them out of huge volume of calls handled by a carrier such as Verizon, Frankel said. So, if carriers refuse to handle calls from smaller companies that pass along spam calls, that would diminish their volume.
The U.S. Senate has passed legislation that would push the major telecom companies to better authenticate calls while also helping to identify the sources of the spam calls and increasing penalties that the Federal Communications Commission can levy against scammers. Collins and Sen. Angus King signed on to the bill. The House has also passed legislation, which would give the commission greater authority to take action against robocalls. Rep. Chellie Pingree was a co-sponsor of the bill. The differing bills must be reconciled.
These are all important steps toward ending the scourge of scam calls that interrupt dinners and, in extreme cases, ruin lives.
It will take many types of pressure — better federal laws, continuing enforcement actions and voluntary agreements — to curb robocalls.