Congressman Jared Huffman

Representing the 2nd District of California

PD Editorial: Help Americans hang up on robocallers

Apr 24, 2018
In The News

It used to be that annoying telemarketers mostly rang at dinnertime. If you weren’t home, you missed the call. Now, people carry their phones everywhere, and the telemarketers have become scammers with advanced tools to reach them. There’s seemingly no escape, but a new bill in Congress aims to give people a fighting chance.

We know, #FirstWorldProblems. But those calls aren’t just irritating, they’re also dangerous to anyone who, in a moment of weakness, engages with a scammer. It’s a short road to identity theft or paying a fraudulent bill. People tell themselves that they aren’t so gullible, but enough not-so-gullible people out there fall for the tricks that annual losses to scammers total billions.

The crooks behind the calls are quite proficient and insidiously clever. After last year’s fires, they preyed on Sonoma County victims by posing as Environmental Protection Agency officials. In other places, they’ve pretended to be from the local sheriff’s office or the Internal Revenue Service — whatever sounds plausible.

And their tools have become more powerful. They can call from anywhere in the world but appear to be in the neighborhood by spoofing — using computer software to imply a call is coming a local phone number. They don’t need much labor. Automatic dialers and pre-recorded messages screen out the people who don’t answer or who hang up immediately.

The national Do Not Call Registry was supposed to help. Put your name on the list, and most robocalls and other unwanted phone calls would stop. It didn’t work out that way because crooks who would scam people aren’t the sort of people who abide by a list.

A few robocallers have faced large fines for their abuses, but mostly they go unpunished because they can operate in near-anonymity.

The Bay Area’s Rep. Jackie Speier and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden therefore recently introduced the ROBOCOP Act (Repeated Objectionable Bother of Consumers on Phones Act) in their respective chambers. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, is a cosponsor.

Silly, forced acronym aside, the bill would give welcome relief. Instead of focusing on the crooks, it would require telecom companies to provide free tools for consumers to block scammers. Telecoms also would have to ensure that phone numbers that appear on caller ID are accurate — no more spoofed local numbers.

The bill has a long way to go before passage. One might think that something with so much potential popularity among Americans sick and tired of robocalls would garner bipartisan support, but Republicans so far have not backed the idea. All the cosponsors are Democrats. It’s early days, though, and that could change, especially if people start bombarding lawmakers with calls, texts and emails.

In the meantime, don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. If you do wind up on the line with a robocaller, hang up. If they ask you to press “1” to be removed from the list, don’t. You’re only confirming to the scammers that they should try your number again.

The Constitution doesn’t guarantee Americans a right not to be bothered by robocalls. Rather, forcing companies that use the public airwaves to help people avoid those calls is simply sensible public policy.