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Washington trying to cure robocall epidemic

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS
  • Star Tribune
  • December 14, 2013 - 6:23 PM

There is one thing I can say with certainty that Whistleblower readers want for Christmas — to make Rachel, Lisa, Brian and every other robocaller stop calling.

“I tried to be nice. I tried to be naughty, but it does no good. I keep getting the calls from Rachel and the minute you try to ask politely to get your named removed, they hang up,” said Rod Pickett, who lives in northern Minnesota.

The voices of exasperated citizens have also reached Congress, which has prodded telephone companies to put an end to the nuisance calls.

But the telecom industry says that it cannot block robocalls right now because of legal and technical limitations and that a solution is still years away.

That response has not set well with some members of Congress.

This month, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said she plans to introduce legislation that would allow regulators to use call blockers and other robocall-fighting technologies.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a bill in November that would increase penalties and send some of the worst robocallers to prison.

Lawmakers acknowledge that the Do Not Call registry and caller ID have failed to stop robocallers. The callers can hide their real numbers by “spoofing,” which is easily achieved by routing calls through the Internet.

The illegitimate firms that deploy Rachel from Cardholder Services to your phone ignore the Do Not Call registry “just as any criminal in any context ignores applicable norms,” the United States Telecom Association told McCaskill.

In the past year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received an average of 180,000 complaints about robocalls every month.

There’s a big incentive for fraudulent telemarketers to keep calling: the FTC estimates that consumers who fall for the offers lose between $3 billion to $40 billion a year.

‘There is no respect’

Diane Ahlquist of Richfield said she gets about five calls a week from “medical alert” peddlers, who say that they have a free medical alert bracelet and that they need to update her shipping information.

When the robocaller prompts Ahlquist to press “1” to speak with an operator, she has done so only to ask the human on the other side to stop calling. She has spoken to Julie, Melody and Carol, all of whom say they will not call.

But the calls keep coming.

“Part of me is sympathetic to these people because they are working. They may be trying to earn a living. But the part that upsets me is that there is no respect when I ask them to please not call me,” she said.

–The Wireless Association to weigh in on two technologies that she thought held promise.

Telemarketing Guard, offered by a Canadian company called Primus, identifies a potential robocall and plays a message to the caller saying that the customer does not accept telemarketing calls and asking the caller to press “1” to record their name. The system then calls the customer, tells them about the potential telemarketing call and plays the recording.

Nomorobo, created by Aaron Foss of New York, automatically disconnects potential robocalls using a “block list” derived from the Do Not Call List complaint database, robocall phone numbers identified by subscribers and phone numbers the company determines come from suspicious entities.

Robocallers will find a way

Both trade associations said in letters to McCaskill that the technologies would not work because the law prohibits mass call blocking and they believe the robocallers would find a way to get around the block lists. Legitimate robocalls, such as snow emergency alerts or school lockdown alerts, could be blocked with these two technologies.

As an alternative, the associations said they are working to develop a solution that “attacks” the IP networks where unsolicited robocalls originate. However, they said that it’s still in the development phase and that once that’s done, “it will require at least a two- to-three-year implementation timeline.”

On Dec. 4, McCaskill announced that she would be drafting legislation to permit the use of technologies like Nomorobo and the Telemarketing Guard after she “noted disappointment in the companies’ lack of interest in exploring innovative solutions to reduce the number of robocalls received by consumers.”

McCaskill’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment on the potential legislation.

While we wait to see what the federal government is going to do to put a stop to Rachel and her friends, John Frounfelter of Minneapolis has found a way to cope.

Frounfelter has filed 32 complaints with the Federal Communications Commission in the past year.

“It’s my new hobby,” he said.

 

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028 Twitter: @amatos12

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