Robocall relief may be coming, but it’s likely temporary and won’t be foolproof

There are “four serious charges” against me, someone can sell me the answer to my “chronic back pain,” I can translate what sounds like Mandarin, and I appear to have as many friends in Belarus and Lithuania as I do in Baraboo and Lake Mills.

How do I know all that and more? My robocalls.

Like most of the people in America these days, I don’t pick up my mobile phone to answer a call until checking first to see if I recognize the number. It’s not just a time-wasting nuisance but also a growing danger, especially to those who may fall for scams of all types.

Nearly 48 billion robocalls were placed in 2018, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, up about 57 percent from 30 billion calls in 2017. They range from alerts and reminders to telemarketing to pure scams involving health care, interest rates, student loans, travel, taxes, and more.

They come from people who want you to give them your Social Security number. They come from faraway places with a single ring that tempt you to call back, meaning you might get stuck with paying a fee much like a 900 number.

They come from familiar area codes and prefixes, even though they originated far away. That trick is called “spoofing” and it can get past filters otherwise in place. My wife once got a robocall that purported to be from her own phone.

If there is an issue that can unite Republicans and Democrats alike, it might be robocalls. That’s happening in Congress, where U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., have co-sponsored the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act — which goes by the acronym TRACED — to curb illegal calls and spoofing.

Specifically, the bill would require providers of voice services to use authentication protocols, one of which goes by the James Bond-inspired nickname of STIR/Shaken. That system has been installed by at least one mobile carrier with more to follow soon, but it’s not compatible with all devices and must also be adopted by those who operate in the cable and voice-over-internet worlds to be most effective.

Among the 54 attorneys general in the United States and its territories who have endorsed the TRACED bill is Wisconsin’s Josh Kaul. Brad Pfaff, the secretary-designee for Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, has done the same.

“Telemarketing complaints have nearly doubled in Wisconsin since 2015, and the vast majority of these are illegal robocalls,” Pfaff said.

Nationally, the story is very much the same: Robocalls are the No. 1 source of consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

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The Wisconsin Legislature has also taken notice. State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and State Sen. Dale Kooygenga, R-Brookfield, have introduced a bill aimed at preventing telemarketers from displaying a false phone number on the recipients’ caller ID — the trick known as “spoofing.” The bill would also prohibit telemarketers from blocking their caller ID information altogether.

In case you’re wondering, this is one national problem that can’t be blamed on President Trump … at least, not for the first 10 years. The phenomenon has been growing since 2006, with FCC and FTC misfires every few years after the first version of STIR/Shaken was unveiled to regulators.

Then again, it’s no guarantee that government intervention would have solved the problem then or now. Whether it’s federal or state actions, such measures assume robocallers will follow laws and regulations (unlikely, without sharp teeth) or not invent smarter technical work-arounds.

In the meantime, people can sign up for the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry or download apps such as RoboKiller, Verizon’s CallFilter, AT&T’s CallProtect, and T-Mobile’s NameID. Again, none of those solutions are perfect, but they can be better than nothing until a better protocol comes along.

Robocallers may be doing what the nation needs most: uniting people around a common scourge. It’s not climate change, the deficit, immigration, or trade, but maybe it’s a start.

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