Ringing off the hook: protecting consumers from illegal robocalls

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A couple of years ago, one of my most valued staff members retired after more than 30 years of public service. She served as staff director for the Senate Aging Committee that I chair, where she organized many hearings examining automated dialing “robocalls” and their use in defrauding seniors. She told me, however, that it wasn’t until she retired, and is now home during the day, that she fully realized the problem of robocalls. From morning until night, she says her phone rings – often with threatening scam artists on the other end of the line.

When Congress created the National Do-Not-Call list 14 years ago, its intent was to end the flood of unwelcome phone calls. Despite some initial success, phones are still ringing off the hook.

Last year, Americans received an estimated 2.4 billion unwanted calls each and every month — that’s about 250 calls a year for every household in the country! My husband and I received so many calls on our landline at our home in Bangor that we discontinued it.

One of my top priorities on the Aging Committee is to better protect seniors from fraud, which is why we established a toll-free Fraud Hotline (1-855-303-9470). For the last two years, the committee has published a booklet describing the Top 10 scams targeting seniors. In both years, robocalls were third on our list of hotline complaints.

I recently chaired a committee hearing to examine why Americans who have signed up for the Do-Not-Call registry are still receiving annoying, unwanted phone calls and explore what can be done about it. Our focus was on the importance of education, enforcement, and call-blocking technologies.

In previous hearings on this topic, we learned that changes in technology have made it possible for scammers operating overseas to use automated dialing to reach victims here in the U.S.

This was not feasible when the Do-Not-Call registry was established in 2003. At that time, phone calls were routed through telecommunications equipment that was complicated to operate. This made high-volume, automated calling difficult and expensive, particularly for international calls. Also, older equipment could not be used easily to disguise or “spoof” a caller ID.

But now, phone calls can be routed from anywhere in the world at practically no cost using so-called “Voice Over-Internet Protocol” technology – or “VoIP.” Combined with simple computer apps, criminals can use VoIP to generate millions of robocalls to cast a wide net in their hunt for victims. They can even “spoof” the number displayed by caller-ID to hide their true identity, making it more likely that their intended victim will pick up the phone. It is significant that the No. 1 scam on the committee’s Top 10 list – fraudsters impersonating IRS agents demanding immediate payment for taxes and penalties allegedly owed – often use this “spoofing” technology.

But just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to fight back. There are technologies consumers can use to block illegal robocalls. In fact, our Fraud Hotline investigators refer consumers plagued by robocalls to the website of Nomorobo, a free service that screens and blocks robocalls made to VoIP phone numbers. In addition, the Robocall Strike Force, a collaboration between telecommunications and technology companies, is working on ways to identify robocall traffic at the network level and block it before it even reaches the consumer. At our hearing, I urged the telecommunications industry to continue working to develop affordable technology that can help Americans avoid these calls.

Aggressive law enforcement is also key to stopping illegal robocalls. In a case brought by the Department of Justice last year, dozens of individuals operating through call centers in India were indicted for allegedly defrauding tens of thousands of Americans out of hundreds of millions of dollars, using the notorious IRS impersonation scam.

The committee’s own data show that these arrests had a real impact. Prior to the arrests, nearly three out of four calls to our hotline involved the IRS impersonation scam. But in the three months after the arrests, reports of the scam dropped an incredible 94 percent. Though the numbers have since rebounded somewhat, they are still far below the levels we have seen in the past. The point is that law enforcement works; it deters others from committing the crime.

Informed consumers are better able to protect themselves. The Federal Communications Commission offers these tips:

• Do not give out personal information in response to an incoming call. Scammers often pose as representatives of financial institutions or government agencies in order to convince victims to reveal account or Social Security numbers, passwords, and other sensitive information.

• Government agencies, such as the IRS, will never harass or threaten you, nor will they demand payment in the form of pre-paid gift cards, such as iTunes cards.

• If you receive a call that raises suspicion, hang up. Call the number on your account statement, in the phonebook, or on the company’s or government agency’s website to find out if the entity that called you actually needs the requested information from you.

If we are going to win this fight, we need to better our understanding of these con artists and their scams and how they operate. What we learn will help inform those who are most at risk, particularly our older Americans, so that they don’t fall victim to these scams.

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