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Here’s a daunting number for regulators and law enforcement: There were 4.1 billion of the unwanted phone calls nationwide just last month alone.
PORTLAND, Ore. — If you’ve received a robocall or some sort of other unwanted phone solicitation, you aren’t alone. State attorneys general and other public officials know your frustration. Their offices field plenty of complaints.
“It is absolutely getting worse year by year and month by month,” Swain Wood, general counsel for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, said during a panel discussion at the National Association of Attorneys General summer meeting this past week in Oregon.
In 2015, there were 14 billion unwanted calls in the U.S., according to Wood. In 2017, people received 30 billion of those calls. And looking at numbers for last month, there were 4.1 billion robocalls nationwide, Wood said before highlighting specific geographic areas—in eastern North Carolina, there were 28.9 million unwanted calls and 16.3 million in Portland.
Much of the “explosion” of calls can be blamed on cheaper technology that makes it “much easier for international actors outside the United States” to target into U.S.-based phones,” he said.
In 2016, there were $9.5 billion in damages from robocall scams in the U.S.
“It’s real money to people,” Wood said, sharing the story of one scammed victim from his state, a 31-year-old foreign-born citizen who received a voicemail from someone claiming to be from the “IRS” telling her to call back or face a fine, the threat of arrest and revocation of her driver’s license if she didn’t pay $5,600 in back taxes.
It’s among the popular phone scams that’s being reported around the nation—even North Dakota’s governor received a similar call this month.
Another phone scam, where a caller claims to be from a utility company, targets businesses. “This is really hot right now,” said Marguerite Sweeney, a senior deputy attorney general in Indiana who works in the data privacy and identity theft unit. “They tell the business that they’re coming right now to shut off their electricity.”
So what can be done?
“Enforcement is obviously a big piece of the equation, Wood said, adding that technology “has really got to be part of the answer.” Intergovernmental and cross-sector cooperation are critically important, too. “There is a consensus that in order to make an impact on this, things have to be coordinated across industry and government and every level of government,” he said.
On the consumer end, besides increased education around scams and fraudulent activity, there are call-blocking apps and services that are available, like Nomorobo. But they usually involve a fee.
“We think all consumers should have free access to that type of technology,” Maureen Mahoney, a Consumers Union public policy fellow, said during the panel.
“I am fully supportive of putting tools in the hands of consumers,” said Kevin Rupy, vice president of law and policy at USTelecom, a trade association representing broadband services. “But it is less an availability issue at this point and more an awareness issue.”
Mahoney said that the FCC should mandate “technology that verifies the accuracy of the Caller ID information.”
Rupy said that controlling the surge robocalls has been a top consumer priority for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and for telecommunications providers. To date, he said, AT&T has blocked upwards of 3.5 billion robocalls. Providers have also been active in an “industry-led strike force” to attack unwanted robocalls.
When Sweeney started working in the Indiana AG’s office in 2002, the enforcement situation with unwanted calls was very different. “The tree was ripe with low-hanging telemarketers,” she said. But now the use of voice-over-internet-protocol, or VOIP, provides “a screen for telemarketers to hide behind.”
With that, there are still considerable enforcement challenges for state attorneys general, especially for calls that originate outside the United States. “We don’t have jurisdiction for telemarketers in the Philippines or Panama,” Sweeney said of the Indiana attorney general’s office. Extradition, when available, isn’t an easy process.
Keep Filing Complaints, Please
Complaining through official channels—whether its through a state AG’s office, the Federal Communications Commission or Federal Trade Commission—only goes so far, unfortunately.
“In most cases, it won’t stop the calls,” Sweeney said. With so many complaints regarding unwanted calls, “spoofed” phone numbers make it difficult to pinpoint who actually called. “We find that there’s nothing we can do, … we don’t have enough information to find out who called them.”
Despite that unwelcome outlook, consumer complaints still help with enforcement.
“File complaints everywhere,” said Kristi Thornton, an associate division chief at the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. That includes the FCC, the FTC and state AGs.
“The complaint data is not always acted on but it is considered,” Thornton—who noted she wasn't speaking in an official capacity for the FCC—said during the panel discussion.
Sometimes, investigating an unwanted call leads to phone number broker, Sweeney said. A state attorney general’s office can then send a sternly worded letter to that broker.
“It usually convinces the broker to take action against the customer,” she said. Still, “it’s just an inconvenience to the scammers” since they can easily get another number. “But it’s something that we can do.”
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.