The effort to stop robocalls

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 3rd of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: robocalls.

If you have a cellphone, I imagine you have been robocalled a time or two: you know those computer-dialed phone calls with the pre-recorded message. The call shows up with your area code, so it seems local and seems like someone you know or ought to know. So you answer. And then you hear something like this.

AUDIO: This call is regarding to your Social Security number. We found some fraudulent activities under your name.

REICHARD: Robocall scams like these are becoming a bigger nuisance all the time. In 2018, Americans logged 48 billion of them. 

Despite the nuisance and even sometimes the danger posed by robocalls, phone companies as well as state and federal governments have been slow to do much about them. But last month, all 50 state attorneys general, as well as the one in the District of Columbia, announced a partnership with major phone companies to fix the problem.

Here’s WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Josh Stein is the attorney general of North Carolina. He’s spearheading the partnership. Stein told MSNBC states need to act and not just because robocalls are a nuisance.

STEIN: It’s an annoyance but it’s also a source of incredible scams. One woman lost over $200,000 from a sweepstakes-generated robocall. So it is imperative that we take action.

Here’s what the plan includes. Phone companies say they’ll begin to offer free call-blocking tools. Most networks already offer these services but consumers had to request them or pay extra for them.

The state AGs are also urging the phone companies to implement call authentication technology aimed at stopping “neighbor spoofing.” That’s where robocallers use real numbers to mask fraudulent calls. 

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein says using the technology companies could block fake calls or have Caller ID label numbers as legitimate or fake.  

STEIN: They are going to be able to ensure that the number that displays on that screen is actually the number that’s calling you. 

State AGs are also urging phone companies to dedicate more resources to tracing fraudulent robocalls. That way, authorities can prosecute faster. 

Josh Stein says the pact is a meaningful move towards solutions but don’t expect robocalls to go away anytime soon. Twelve phone companies on board is a good start, but there are many more carriers out there. 

STEIN: It’s gonna take time. Some of it’s deploying the technology. Some of the companies are further along at doing this than other companies. What we want for us to succeed, all companies have to deploy all strategies.

The anti-robocall agreement comes on the heels of Senate legislation passed in May. The bipartisan TRACED Act aims to increase fines for scam robocallers and make those fines easier to collect. It would also require phone companies to develop call-authentication technologies. The House hasn’t voted on the bill yet. 

Then in June, the FCC urged phone carriers to begin blocking robocalls automatically. 

Sascha Meinrath is a telecommunications professor at Penn State University and directs the X Lab Tech Policy Institute. He’s skeptical anything will come from the AG-telecom agreement.

MEINRATH: I would say that it is likely to fail. 

Meinrath says implementing network-level call-blocking infrastructure is expensive. Plus, phone companies make money from answered robocalls. 

MEINRATH: The profit motives are on the wrong side of this equation.

Meinrath argues carriers will only make necessary changes if there’s some teeth behind government urging. In other words, financial repercussions.

MEINRATH: I don’t want to downplay the cost associated with upgrading our systems to prevent robocalls. On the other hand, what’s never talked about in Washington DC is what’s the cost to our country and all of the lost productivity in the extra annoyance and the distracted driving and all of these other things caused by this onslaught of robocalls across the entire country. 

Other industry experts are more optimistic that phone companies will confront robocalls voluntarily. Tarun Wadhwa is the founder of tech advisory firm Day One Insights. Wadhwa says first of all, public opinion needs to cut phone companies some slack. 

Filtering real from fraudulent, helpful from harassing robocalls, is not a straightforward task. And if a phone company gets it wrong, there could be serious repercussions. 

WADHWA: So if they are to perhaps identify a number as a scammer that’s not a scammer and they blocked that person’s call from being received, you know, there’s legal penalties they could incur. So for phone companies its been a bit of a mixed bag. 

But Wadhwa says the challenge of confronting robocalls is no longer an excuse in the mind of consumers. He says if telecom companies don’t start making changes and fast, in good old capitalist fashion, consumers will start voting with their dollars.

WADHWA: What they don’t understand is that consumers are going to eventually migrate over to database calling, which has far better security protections if they aren’t able to clean up this problem. So I definitely see a future for things like Skype, Whatsapp. So phone carriers really need to understand that their entire future is at stake.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File) In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. 

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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