You know the game by now: A call comes into your mobile phone. A number pops up on your screen. You don’t recognize it. Your first instinct is to decline it, but what if it’s your child’s school? The auto repair guy? Something else? It’s a guessing game, and we’re the losers, again and again each day.
U.S. mobile phone users received 48 billion robocalls last year, and it’s getting worse. Companies, some of them overseas, are using auto-dialing programs that encode Caller ID information so that the call looks like it’s from a local number — sometimes even numbers that look like your employer. That’s why we’re answering calls from computers and sending humans to voicemail. We’re cussing at our phones instead of talking on them. It’s annoying, and it violates laws that are supposed to protect Americans from spamming and scamming.
But there is, potentially, a flickering of relief to the robocall madness.
Lawmakers from state capitals to Washington are moving to slow the firehose of robocalls, and on Thursday, a U.S. Senate committee will hold a hearing on what it calls “The Scourge” of phone spam. It’s a bit of a show hearing — a chance for lawmakers to grill a telecom representative and signal that they understand their constituents’ misery. But the hearing is backed up with some legislation — the TRACED Act — which would push telecoms to improve their technology so that consumers can more easily identify scammers who wish to steal personal information. All four major carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — have said they’ll adopt the strategy, but critics think they need the 18-month deadline the TRACED Act would mandate.
The bill also makes it easier for the FCC to more quickly slap robocallers with significant fines, and it nudges the agency to be more aggressive with phone companies. The FCC has been ratcheting up its requests for telecoms to adopt more robust robocall technology, but it has been slow to actually require action.
Meanwhile, states are taking steps of their own, including Virginia, which passed a law cracking down on companies that call residents who are on the National Do Not Call Registry or have stated previously they don’t want to be solicited by that company. Little, however, has been done recently in North Carolina beyond Attorney General Josh Stein joining 34 attorneys general in a letter urging the feds to do something about robocalls.
NC lawmakers should monitor whether Virginia’s new law slows the number of spam calls to our northern neighbors, or whether robocallers ignore that state law the same way they have with federal mandates. Meanwhile, Congress and the U.S. government should pursue newer and tougher action. It won’t end the calls coming in to our mobile phones, but it could help us identify more quickly who’s on the other end. And the less time we spend with our phones, the better.