The attempted crackdown on robocalls


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Those annoying robocalls and what to do about them.

Marketing companies, carriers, and crooks make millions off them, while lawmakers and regulators grapple with the problem. And there’s no quick fix.

WORLD Radio’s Kristen Flavin has our story.

AUDIO: Cell phone sound

KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: You probably hear that sound once—twice—maybe even five times a day. A phone call intrudes on your daily routine with what could be an offer from a legitimate company, or a scam to defraud you.

Robocalls run the gamut from completely legal to outright criminal.

IRS ROBOCALL SCAM: This call is officially a final notice from IRS to inform you that IRS is filing lawsuit against you. Please call immediately on our department number 253-214-4667. Thank you.

Many people won’t answer a blocked number or a call from an unrecognized number. But scammers have found a way around that.

Increasingly, they use a number within your area code, and maybe even with your three-digit prefix to make you think the call is local and legitimate. It’s a technique known as spoofing.

Crooks have taken that even a step further, displaying real phone numbers of local cell phone customers to fool the unsuspecting. 

Phoebe Kendall got a call from an angry woman in her town. 

KENDALL: She was so mad. She just said that she’s sick of me harassing her every day, and that if it happens again that I will hear from her lawyer. 

Kendall told ABC she was confused at first—

KENDALL: But I figured pretty quickly that somebody was just using my number. 

Robocalls work in different ways. They can simply be a recorded message, or there could be a live human on the other end. Either way, consumer protection lawyer Billy Howard says picking up will only get you more robocalls. 

HOWARD: Do not answer the phone because all of a sudden you are now a live lead, and those live leads are more valuable. 

But not answering an unfamiliar number has its downside too. At a recent  hearing on the robocall plague, South Dakota Senator John Thune said robocalls are not inherently negative. Many are important for transactions in which the consumer has agreed to participate.

THUNE: Indeed, some entities like hospitals and pharmacies use robocalls to remind a patient of an upcoming appointment or that a prescription is ready for pickup. In addition, automakers often use robocalls to warn vehicle owners of urgent safety recalls. Missing calls like these can have life or death consequences for recipients. 

No one with a cell phone is immune to robocalls. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they too are constantly interrupted by them. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. 

BLUMENTHAL: There is bipartisan loathing for robocalls and they are rightly abhorred by consumers. They are not only oppressive and obnoxious, but they are extraordinarily prevalent despite enforcement efforts by the Federal Trade Commission under existing law. 

What to do about robocalls then? Lawmakers had to issue a subpoena to get some answers. They recently dragged telemarketer Adrian Abramovich to Capitol Hill, the man currently appealing the largest fine in Federal Communications Commission history. The FCC wants Abramovich to pay $120 million for making 100 million robocalls and allegedly spoofing and scamming those who answered. 

Abramovich “took the 5th” for any question specific to his case, but he said that customizable software to make robocalls is readily available on the web. He said the real culprits are the telecom carriers who openly offer special “short duration” call rates to robocallers. 

ABRAMOVICH: There are companies that advertise on the web right now that offer long distance carrier services for dialer short duration termination, also known as robocalls. To me, this is where the enforcement needs to focus on to stop this activity. 

Kevin Rupy with the U.S. Telecom Association represented carriers like AT&T and Verizon at the hearing. He argued his clients are actively working to stop robocall scams and protect consumers.

RUPY: For example, AT&T has launched its Call Protect Service that allows customers with iPhones and HD voice-enabled android handsets to block suspected fraudulent calls.

But using such a service, again, could leave the consumer vulnerable to missing wanted robocalls. Rupy conceded blocking alone won’t solve the problem. 

RUPY: AT&T has blocked 3.3 billion calls and my sense is that we are not going to block our way out of this problem. I think we need to take a very holistic approach in terms of getting tools out there—which is happening—educating consumers and civil and criminal enforcement.

To that end, lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced the RoboCop Act. Among other things, it would require telecom companies to verify that caller IDs are accurate, give consumers free blocking services— and create a nationwide un-blocking system to give consumers control of calls and text messages they receive. 

Expect bipartisan support.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Kristen Flavin.


(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato) In this Sept. 16, 2016 file photo, a customer compares a jet black iPhone 7, right, with her iPhone 6 at the Apple Store in Chicago. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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