Monday, June 18 , 2018, 5:08 am | Fair 51º

 
 
 
 

Diane Dimond: Hello, FCC and FTC — Can You Hear Me Now?

It happens 2.9 billion times each month. All across this nation, citizens are being pestered by privacy-invading telephone calls from either live or tape-recorded telemarketers, spammers and scammers even though there are state and federal laws against such unwanted calls.

Think about this: 2.9 billion calls a month translates to 96.6 million of these annoying and frustrating calls placed every single day. That's 4.25 million phone calls every hour, causing many who answer them to want to tear out their hair.

So, what's Washington doing to help alleviate this productivity-killing, ever-present nuisance that plagues us? After all, unwanted prerecorded calls are clearly illegal unless the company has your prior written permission to phone you.

Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are tasked with enforcing the federal robocall laws and regulations. In 2003, the FTC set up a handy-dandy National Do Not Call Registry for which citizens could register. Just plug in your home and/or cellphone numbers, and viola! You are (supposedly) protected from this most bothersome form of communication.

I just double-checked my home phone number the other day — which, by the way, is an unlisted and blocked number — and the FTC registry told me: "You successfully registered your phone number ending in XXXX on June 29, 2003. Most telemarketers will be required to stop calling you 31 days from your registration date." Really? Then why am I still getting multiple maddening phone calls every single day?

Just for kicks, I also checked my cellphone number and my husband's, and got a similar message. No need to re-register, I was informed, for we are shielded from the telephonic nuisance. Yeah. Right.

Back in 2016, Sen. Chuck Schumer introduced a spiffy-sounding bill called the Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones Act (or ROBOCOP Act), which would have required phone companies to offer free tools to block robocalls. Schumer promised the bill would grant us all some relief.

"The ROBOCOP Act will finally help put a rest to these dreaded calls that are interrupting family dinners — or worse — scamming people out of their hard-earned money," Schumer said during a splashy news conference. "Robocalls are one of the things that annoy Americans the most." Well, I'm annoyed, Mr. Schumer, that you didn't work harder to actually get that bill passed. It died in committee.

Since that time, entrepreneurial companies have developed computer software (apps) to help consumers control these calls by blocking them from even ringing.

The YouMail firm is a pioneer in the field of counting and mapping robocalls, and its list of the worst robocalling hotspots across the nation is considered a must-read. Even the FCC cites its statistics. YouMail offers a free blocking app and boasts that it helps consumers ward off more than 500 million unwanted calls a year.

A newcomer in the field is RoboKiller. This app promises it can automatically block more than 100,000 telemarketers and robocalls from ringing through even if they change their numbers. It also has a "revenge" feature, an Answer Bot (different recordings of human conversation) that will engage the live telemarketers in meaningless chatter so as to waste their time.

But before you rush to get one of these apps, realize that there are now all sorts of pre-taped robocalls you probably want to get. Your doctor's office might be calling to remind you of an upcoming appointment. The company you bought your new appliance from could be calling to give you a delivery time. Utility companies are using robocalls these days to tell customers when they need access to read your meter.

Just last fall, Lois Greisman of the FTC admitted to Congress that Americans' privacy is being invaded by the sheer number of these unwanted calls, and that "robocalls are also frequently used by criminal impostors posing as trusted officials or companies." Well, if these calls are illegal to begin with, why do they keep happening 2.9 billion times a month?!

Greisman said the FTC is using "every tool at its disposal to fight these illegal calls," yet every year, millions of us continue to file complaints. It is pretty clear that Washington has dropped the ball on this problem.

Midterm elections are coming up, folks. I intend to copy this column and write a form letter saying, in effect: "I am a taxpaying U.S. citizen. You are supposed to uphold the anti-robocall law and protect me. Step up the prosecution of these annoying scofflaw companies! Or get lawmakers to pass laws with teeth in them." I plan to send it to the White House, the FTC, the FCC and all my elected officials in Congress. And I will remind them I vote. Join me?

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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