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FCC, Congress should step up to block robocalls

May 17, 2019

No, it’s not your imagination. That phone ringing off the hook, mostly with junk calls, is becoming more persistent.

Robocalls are an epidemic — both to land lines and cell phones — whether from telemarketers, scammers, or reminders of appointments or payments due. In fact, nearly 45 percent of all calls to mobile phones are projected to be scam attempts in 2019, according to First Orion, which provides call management solutions.

This needs to change. When people won’t pick up calls from numbers they don’t recognize, important connections can be missed — perhaps a child whose car has broken down and is borrowing a phone, or an elderly parent’s neighbor calling with an emergency.

Phones should be a way to connect people — not an annoyance that interrupts sleep, conversations and other business of daily life.

According to Consumer Reports, the company YouMail reports a record 48 billion robocalls were placed to U.S. phones in 2018. YouMail both tracks and blocks robocalls and figures the 2018 numbers added up to 1,500 robocalls per second. That’s 56.8 percent more of such calls than the year before.

The National Do Not Call Registry was established so telephone users could avoid telemarketers; for 16 years, though, companies and scam artists have figured out how to stay ahead of regulations. People intent of stealing from you via phone don’t pay attention to the rules, anyway. Some criminal operations work from abroad, making it difficult for U.S. authorities to block them. The problem will only become worse — unless Congress and the Federal Communications Commission do more to stop these annoying calls.

In Congress, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act was introduce in January. It’s a bipartisan bill — co-sponsors are Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and John Thune, R-N.D. The bill seeks to strengthen the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, increasing fines and requiring carriers to make sure numbers are real and not made up.

Technology could help too, with systems that would identify potentially fraudulent calls. The TRACED Act would require telecom companies to implement the technology; of course, these companies could act even without a law — and they should.

Even without congressional action, regulatory intervention could help. The Federal Communications Commission announced this week that it will be voting in June about whether to allow wireless carriers to block spam calls by default — that’s an improvement from the current situation, in which consumers either have to ask for blocks or use third-party apps.

The FCC proposal does not explicitly require companies to use such measures or call for them to be free to consumers; they should be. (Consumers can weigh in at robocallspetition.cr.org, or tweet directly to @FCC asking that phone companies stop robocalls, using the hashtag #EndRobocalls.)

Some of the most annoying robocalls come from politicians seeking campaign donations and votes. Those should be restricted, or perhaps politicians should have the good sense to desist. For us, at least, a robocall from office seekers that arrive when we are trying to cook dinner, or visit with our family, make us likely to vote for their opponents. We don’t need these constant interruptions.

Phones are a necessary part of modern life. It’s time to reclaim them for their original purpose — connecting people.