If you're being driven crazy by robocalls, help may be on the way.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has introduced legislation to strengthen the Federal Communications Commission's ability to crack down on what's become a high-tech pain.
Her bill would allow the FCC to slap harsher penalties on robocallers and extend the agency's reach in cracking down on so-called spoofers — robocallers that hide their identity from caller ID systems or appear as a call you'd want to take, such as from your local police department or a nearby hospital.
For its part, the FCC is trying to get phone companies more involved. The need for help from on high was underlined by eBay and PayPal, both of which recently announced that they were modifying their terms of service to allow "auto-dialed or prerecorded calls or text messages" to contact users. EBay's contract change is in effect; PayPal's will kick in July 1.
This is messed up on a number of levels, not least that these guys should know better. Consumers have made it clear, loudly, that they don't like being bothered in this manner.
Unfortunately, robocalls fall into a gray area of the law. At least when spoofing is involved.
Federal law forbids using telecommunications equipment "to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value."
That would seem to rule out all spoofing. The problem for consumers is that courts have ruled that "non-harmful" spoofing is OK.
Some telemarketers have argued that since their intent is merely to contact someone, not defraud them, their spoofing is non-harmful.
McCaskill said nearly all legitimate telemarketers honor the federal do-not-call list. She said many robocalls these days are from overseas scammers. Her bill would expand the scope of current spoofing rules to apply to anyone outside the country who targets a U.S. resident.
Just because U.S. regulators would have the authority to go after overseas scammers, that obviously doesn't mean teams of commandos would be raiding the offices of spoofers worldwide.
At best, it potentially would give American officials a piece of the action if a foreign government cracked down on a spoofing operation, which seldom happens.
What eBay and PayPal are doing is more troublesome. These aren't overseas scammers. They're a couple of the best-known companies in Silicon Valley.
Mike Wagner, a PayPal spokesman, said that customers who don't want to be bothered "can choose not to receive auto-dialed or prerecorded message calls."
However, there's nothing in the revised terms of service that says you can opt out of robocalls. No one at eBay returned my calls and e-mails.
Lawmakers and regulators are in agreement: More needs to be done to stop robocalls. They're doing what they can. It's now up to phone companies to do their share in protecting customers.
I asked AT&T and Verizon about their plans. Both companies declined to comment.
David Lazarus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.