States try to silence robocalls, but they’re worse than ever

August 1, 2018

By Elaine S. Povich


WASHINGTON — Robocalls — those nettlesome autodial telephone calls from both scammers and legitimate businesses — skyrocketed in the first half of 2018, and have prompted the most complaints to federal and most state enforcement officials of any consumer topic in recent years.

But as much as top state law enforcement officers would love to go after the robocallers, who often operate outside the law, the combined hurdles of technology, economics and geography make the job difficult.

Robocalls jumped dramatically nationwide this year, from 2.9 billion in January to 4.1 billion in June, according to YouMail Inc., a company that tracks robocalls and sells software to block them.

Unwanted calls are the biggest complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, making up about 60 percent of complaints the agency gets. Robocalls also are the top complaint at the Federal Trade Commission, which in fiscal 2017 received more than 4.5 million robocall complaints.

While states are trying to crack down — a tougher law was enacted in Connecticut, for example, and legislation is pending in a handful of other states — they face almost insurmountable obstacles because often the callers are offshore. And while telephone companies are taking steps to help combat the calls, state officials imply they are not helping enough.

“There is a problem with a lot of these calls emanating from overseas,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat. “The practicalities of enforcement become problematic.”

State attorneys general know what makes their constituents mad because they hear it. And the calls are not just nuisances — consumers are cheated out of an estimated $350 million a year by phone scams, many involving automatic dialing, according to the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

States are trying to act. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, in June signed a bill adding criminal fines and penalties to the state’s anti-robocall statute. The law goes into effect in October.

In Massachusetts, a bill making its way through the Legislature would prohibit robocalls to mobile devices and impose penalties including fines starting at $10,000 for each violation.

In New Jersey, a bill urging the FCC to require landline and wireless telephone service providers to implement technology to block robocalls to customers, free of charge, is also working its way through the Legislature.

A New York bill similarly would limit autodialed telephone calls to state residents and require telephone service providers to provide free “call mitigation technology.”

Ian Barlow, the FTC’s Do Not Call program coordinator, acknowledges that state efforts to subvert illegal robocall scams are limited, but he said states also serve an important function in coordinating with federal agencies to crack down on large scam operations.

Barlow pointed to a 2015 case involving the FTC and 10 states from Florida to Washington that resulted in Caribbean Cruise Lines being barred from robocalling.

“I think there are some challenges for states,” Barlow said, adding that states were at the forefront of the Do Not Call lists before the effort spread nationwide. He said states often identify “bad actors” quickly. When states sue bad actors, they stop operating there, though they often move on to other states until the feds get involved.

Among the challenges, Barlow said, is that cellphone owners can take their mobile numbers with them when they move across state lines. “Number portability makes it a trickier issue,” he said. “That doesn’t mean (states) are ineffective.”

Phone customers are simply fed up, said Maureen Mahoney, a Consumers Union public policy fellow. She urged all levels of government, along with the phone companies, to use all methods to stop the unwanted calls.

“I think it’s important for every consumer to have strong legal protections against robocalls,” she said. “If we see progress in one or two states, that could lead to more states and help push the FCC and the Congress to take action. FCC has said addressing robocalls is a priority, but the problem continues to get worse.”

Robocalls are the No. 1 consumer complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, its chairman said last year. “It’s the No. 1 consumer complaint,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, referencing the national figures. “The Do Not Call list doesn’t work.”

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