Ringing Off The Hook: The Proliferation Of Unwanted Calls

When Congress passed legislation creating the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003, we thought we had put an end to the plague of unwelcome telemarketers who were interrupting Americans morning, noon, and night. But now, nearly twelve years later, phones are once again ringing off the hook.

Too many of us can relate to the frustration that results from high volumes of unwanted and disruptive calls. Yet, signing up for the Do Not Call list doesn’t seem to make a difference in far too many cases. In addition, advances in technology, such as robocalls, the ability to disguise, or “spoof” a caller ID, and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), are making it easier for scammers to reach potential victims.

I recently chaired a Senate Aging Committee hearing to examine the proliferation of unwanted calls and whether the Do Not Call Registry is still effective. One of our witnesses was Linda Blase, a small business owner from Dallas, Texas, who had become so frustrated and overwhelmed by “junk” calls that she kept a log of them.

Over the course of just one month, she said she received 74 unwanted calls, 62 of which were robocalls. From telephone calls from scammers claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and robocalls soliciting home security systems and home mortgages, to a call from someone trying to sell her an ATM machine for her home-based business, the calls keep coming. Ms. Blase has been trying for years to stop these calls through complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), complaints to the Consumers Union, and by registering for the Do Not Call list. Yet, her unwanted calls have not only continued, they have increased.

Unfortunately, this is a very common complaint reported to the Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline (1-855-303-9470). In addition, according to the FTC, complaints related to unwanted calls are the largest category of complaints received by the Commission, numbering more than 215,000 last year.

A large part of the problem traces to the fact that the regulatory framework behind the Do Not Call list has been rendered ineffective by advances in technology. It used to be that phone calls were routed through equipment that was costly and complicated to operate. High-volume calling was difficult and expensive, especially for international calls.

That old equipment could not easily be used to disguise or “spoof” a caller ID. But now, phone calls can be routed from anywhere in the world at practically no cost. This can be done using so-called “Voice Over-Internet Protocol” technology – or “VoIP.” And the computer programs needed to generate these calls are remarkably inexpensive and easy to use.

Reputable telemarketers scrub their calling lists against a database to make sure they don’t dial numbers belonging to consumers who have signed-up for the Do Not Call list. If you are on that list, there is a good chance that the telemarketer calling you isn't legitimate. Instead, it could be a scam artist using a computer programmed to generate “robocalls.” These robocalls typically originate offshore, often from call centers in India. But you would not know that fact looking at your caller ID because the scammers “spoof” their caller ID to add credibility and hide their true location.

Spoofing is a tool used regularly by telephone con artists and is, unfortunately, very easy. To demonstrate how easy, during the recent hearing on this issue, I received a call from what appeared on my Caller ID to be the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Yet, the call was really coming from a member of my staff, who was sitting just a few feet away, and with great ease, was able to spoof the DOJ number from his cell phone number using a free IPhone app.

While technology exists to easily generate these calls, fortunately it also exists to block them. Telecommunications companies should be doing more to protect their customers by blocking unwanted calls, but have argued that they do not have the legal ability to do so.

In what is a positive development for consumers frustrated by unwanted calls, the FCC has approved a proposal, which I supported, clarifying that telecommunications companies do, in fact, have the ability to block these calls without being in violation of the law.

In addition, I have joined with the Aging Committee’s Ranking Member, Claire McCaskill, in introducing a bill that would provide more authority to the FCC to combat Caller ID spoofing and to strengthen penalties for those who generate these calls.

Ironically, as I was writing this column, I received two back-to-back, unwelcome telemarking calls at home trying to sell me an extended warranty for my car, despite my having signed up for the Do Not Call Registry! When I answered the calls, there was that telltale sign of a robocall—a pause before a person came on the phone trying to pressure me to buy something I did not want or need.

If we are going to win the fight against scammers targeting Americans, it is crucial that we get ahead of the technology they use to generate robocalls and to spoof caller IDs.