Fighting back: Proposed legislation seeks to punish scam robocallers

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Telephone companies and federal lawmakers are hoping new laws and technology could help them make progress in the battle against robocalls.

The unwanted calls have exploded in recent years. In January 2018, there were about 2.6 billion calls a month, according to the YouMail Robocall Index. By March 2019, the number was up to 5.2 billion – an increase of nearly 80 percent.

Congress seems to have gotten the message that something needs to be done. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that our current laws were intended to punish legitimate telemarketers who sometimes make mistakes or break the rules,” says Sen. Robert Menendez (D – NJ). “What we need are tougher laws to go after the scam artists who don’t play by the rules in the first place.”

LISTEN HERE - Walt Kane's companion podcast on robocalls for News 12 Talks New Jersey:

 

Sen. Menendez is the co-sponsor of legislation he hopes will accomplish this. The bill increases fines to up to $10,000 per illegal robocall, triples the statute of limitations to three years, and requires phone companies to verify the number you see on Caller ID, using technology known as STIR/SHAKEN, which authenticates the numbers responsible for each call with an electronic fingerprint.

Part 1: Beating the system: 60% of robocalls are legal, despite increased legislation 
Part 2: Beating the system: 60% of robocalls are legal, despite increased legislation 

Phone companies say they’re already working on releasing STIR/SHAKEN later this year. “You can see, you know, that it handed off and it’s authenticated,” says David Weissmann, a Verizon spokesman. “You can trust that the call is coming through who it says it is coming from.”

Some say phone carriers can only do so much. “Carriers get paid to connect calls,” says Ethan Garr, co-inventor of RoboKiller, a top-selling robocall blocking app. “Just like the mail service can’t decide what’s junk mail, carriers have to… connect the calls to you.”

Since 2015, the FCC has allowed phone companies to block “clearly illegal” calls, but Kane In Your Corner found most robocalls don’t fall into that category. About 20% are legal; they’re automated alerts from everything from schools to pharmacies. Another 40% are sales or payment reminders. Since they come from companies with which the call recipient has done business, their legality depends on whether the customer consented to be called, something a phone company could not know. That means only about 40% of robocalls could actually be blocked.

Tomorrow: What consumers can do to protect themselves from robocalls and scams.

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