How to respond if you receive a robocall
Congress may have found an issue that all Americans can rally around.
All right – it’s a little depressing that it can’t be world peace or affordable health care. But let’s take what we can get. If our elected officials could join hands and lead us into a world where phones are no longer an instrument of torture, maybe it’d give them enough confidence to march forward and, um, fund some bridge repair.
Everybody has always hated telemarketers, particularly the ones trying to sell some shady product. And now the miracles of technology let them follow you around all day. When I’m home, I feel as if I spend half my time blocking robocalls on our landline. Yet somehow a different number always pops up, with great news about opportunities to reinsure my nonexistent car at low prices or acquire a cost-free knee brace.
The knee brace thing is a scam to get money out of Medicare, but in order to figure that out you’d have to engage in conversation. People, do not ever talk on the phone with a stranger wielding free knee braces. This can be a life rule.
Things are at least as bad on mobile phones, which were the lucky recipients of 48 billion robocalls in the United States alone last year.
Congress has been trying to control the problem at least since 1991, when it passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Remember 1991? “Dances With Wolves” won the Oscar for best picture. The Dow closed the year at 3,168. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s been a while.
At the time the big problem was mainly telemarketers – actual people who dialed your actual number and tried to talk you into buying something. Under the TCPA you could put your name on a national “do not call” list. Some observers did worry about the part of the plan that required the list be maintained by the telemarketers themselves.
Whoops. In 2003 Congress gave the job to the Federal Trade Commission. Then-President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, rejoicing that from then on, when parents were reading to their children at night, they’d no longer be interrupted by “a stranger with a sales pitch.”
Then robocalls really took over the world, and one person on the other side of the planet could push a few buttons and disrupt “Goodnight Moon” from coast to coast.
The FTC kept saying it could take care of the problem. (“you can count on us”) Then the Federal Communications Commission created the Robocall Strike Force in 2016. Great name! Mediocre results.
So here we are, tortured phone owners one and all. Perhaps, like me, you’ve accidentally blocked some of your friends without successfully getting rid of the woman with the free knee brace. Perhaps you were like Dr. Gary Pess, a hand surgeon who told The New York Times’ Tara Siegel Bernard that he stopped answering any calls when he didn’t recognize the number and then discovered one of them was about a person with a severed thumb.
But good news! We’re getting some action. I know “Congress is working on a bill” is not as encouraging as, say, “Let me pour you a drink and change the subject.” But still.
In the House, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., has a proposal called Stopping Bad Robocalls, which certainly gets to the point. Pallone is the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and it’s fair to say he has a healthy chance of getting something done.
Things are more problematic in the Senate, which, as you may have noticed, is barely capable of getting its act together long enough to salute the flag. However, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. – the man who helped give us that Telephone Consumer Protection Act in 1991 – has teamed up with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to sponsor a bipartisan plan. It’s called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, which I certainly hope you noticed spells out Traced.
(Or, OK, Traceda, if you wanted to be really technical.)
The bill, Markey says, is “a perfect example” of lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle getting together and “agreeing we don’t want our wireless devices in our pocket to be called by total strangers 10, 15 times a day.”
Pretty low bar, yes? Perhaps someday we will see a liberal from California and a conservative from Arkansas get together to fight against people who throw beer bottles out of their car window when they’re in the passing lane on the highway.
But let’s not be cynical. Markey says, “If this bill can’t pass then no bill can pass,” and he’s probably right. You need to root him on, given that the other option is falling back in your chair and moaning, “No bill can pass.” Come on.
The idea is to make telephone companies try much harder to identify and block slimy robocalls. And to bring enforcement groups together to find new ways to prosecute the scammers. I know it doesn’t sound all that dramatic, but if you want people to stop calling you every day with offers to repay your student loans, it’s a better strategy than repeatedly screaming “I graduated in 1980!” into the phone.