Does anyone answer the phone anymore? Even with caller ID? Even with the alleged firewall of a “Do Not Call” registration? Even with blockers offered by service providers or third parties?

The proliferation of robocalls and scam calls in the United States has long passed the level of mere annoyance. The unwanted invasions are a drag on the economy as well as an assault on one’s privacy and mental health. They’re also a PR problem for telemarketing firms that operate within the law.

Automated calls that circumvent restrictions and calls that seek to defraud are crimes. They go unpunished, for the most part. Stated simply, scammers are able to stay several steps ahead of government regulators, or far removed in overseas havens.

Sarah Frasch, Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified recently that 17.7 billion of the estimated 47.8 billion robocalls made in the U.S. in 2018 were scams — calls seeking to con people on health insurance, credit card offers, student loans, IRS collections, vehicle warranties, bogus veterans charities and the like.

The Federal Communications Commission received 4.5 million illegal robocall complaints in 2017, nearly tripling in three years. This is clearly a growth industry. Some experts say Americans will be besieged with more than 50 billion such calls this year.

So what can be done? Americans need a combination of public sector regulation and private sector technology to combat this inundation. Most counter-measures have been as effective as fly swatters against a plague of locusts.

Landlines have been reduced to voicemail filters for repetitive robocalls. Cell phones are becoming equally susceptible.

The Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing March 21 to air the possibilities. Frasch, of the Consumer Protection office, told legislators most attempts at regulation fall short because perpetrators are able to switch tactics and numbers easily. Many operate outside the U.S., beyond the reach of law enforcement.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, has introduced a bill to require callers give recipients an easy opt-out from future calls, and to prohibit such calls on holidays. The bill targets deceptive technology that enables telemarketers to mimic local phone numbers, a practice known as spoofing. The state House of Representatives adopted a similar bill last month.

Last year the attorneys general of New Jersey and Pennsylvania joined colleagues from other states in asking the Federal Communications Commission to empower phone service providers to work together to block spoofed calls.

There’s only so much legislatures and state consumer enforcers can do. The FCC should be taking this battle to the trenches, requiring service providers to allow customers to block unwanted calls — and shutting down telemarketers if they don’t offer people an invitation to opt out.

One attempt in this direction is being readied by Comcast and AT&T, called STIR/SHAKEN, which is designed to block spoofing. We’ll see what effect it has when it is introduced later this year.

We need a coordinated public-private counterattack. Workplace productivity suffers from constant interruptions. The sanctity of the home is under attack. Some people, including many seniors, don’t know how to separate fact from fiction on the telephone. They shouldn’t have to wade through this garbage several times a day.

This year half of all cell calls are expected to be spam robocalls. Government regulators and service providers should spend at least half as much energy and ingenuity as the impostors do in disrupting our lives and businesses.

The Easton Express Times

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