We all have experienced it — the perpetual buzz on our mobile phones from familiar numbers, with a local area code, but are actually spoof calls, commonly known as robocalls. However, these calls aren’t just a nuisance — swindlers also use them to prey on senior citizens, vulnerable adults, and landline phone users, many of whom do not have caller-ID.

According to statistics gathered by the State Department of Commerce, Minnesotans have received more than 387 million robocalls so far in 2019, which is approximately 58 calls per impacted person. Scammers use “spoofing” technology, which allows telephone calls originating from across the world to show up on a caller ID with a local area code.

Once a robocaller gets someone on the phone, they engage in increasingly aggressive fraud. Posing as a utility company, bank, or the IRS, fraudsters attempt to convince people that their power will be shut off, their checking account closed, or even that a warrant will be issued for their arrest unless they make an immediate payment.

In fact, cases of financial fraud and exploitation against senior citizens are on the rise nationwide. According to the 2010 Investor Protection Trust Elder Fraud Survey, one out of every five people over the age of 65 has been a victim of a financial swindle.

In Minnesota, several cases of fraud have emerged. In September of 2016, the Star Tribune reported on an 88-year-old Robbinsdale man with Alzheimer’s disease who was swindled out of more than $200,000. Eagan Police Chief Roger New reported last month that he expected telephone fraud to result in over $500,000 in losses just in his city.

As the explosion of fraudulent robocalls grows, we must demand a strong response that holds bad actors accountable. That is why I am proposing bold legislation to crack down on these predatory schemes.

Under my proposed toughest-in-the-nation anti-robocall legislation, all telecommunications companies would be required to use the latest and strongest anti-robocall technology at no extra cost to the consumer. Criminal charges would result in a felony whenever identify theft or a swindle is a result of a robocall. My bill also gives legal tools to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the attorney general and consumers themselves to take action when they receive these would-be illegal calls.

Existing technology allows telecommunications companies to screen and stop many of these calls even before your phone rings. But right now, several of these companies are charging consumers an extra $3 or $4 a month for these blocking services. No Minnesotan should have to pay extra to be protected from fraudulent calls with no legitimate purpose.

Minnesotans are sick and tired of the easy access scammers have to our phones. We shouldn’t have to live with this type of invasive and predatory harassment that too often can lead to fraud. Though the legislative session isn’t set to reconvene until February, I will be ready to hit the ground running on this serious problem.

Robocalls harm Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, and I look forward to working across the aisle with my colleagues in the House and Senate to get the consumer protection results Minnesotans deserve.

 

Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, is a member of the Minnesota House. He can be reached at 651-296-5513 or rep.zack.stephenson@house.mn.