Nation & World

Why are we getting more robocalls?

Zuma Press/TNS

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has introduced a bill that would require phone carriers to offer effective tools to combat abusive robocalls at no additional cost to consumers.
Zuma Press/TNS U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has introduced a bill that would require phone carriers to offer effective tools to combat abusive robocalls at no additional cost to consumers.

“Don’t hang up. Our records indicate you may qualify for a reduction or even forgiveness of your student loan debt.”

“You have been preselected to receive a cellular home security system absolutely free.”

“This is your final courtesy call before we are unable to lower your credit card interest rate.”

Armed with sophisticated but easy-to-use tools, robocallers made a record 3.36 billion of the automated sales, debt collection and scam pitches to U.S. consumers in April — a 6.5 percent increase over the previous record in March, and nearly a 34 percent hike over April 2017, according to a monthly index of the 50 most-robocalled cities in America by YouMail, a robocall blocking service.

Florida cities are among the nation’s most robo-called, according to the YouMail index. In April, Miami ranked 13th and Fort Lauderdale ranked 14th out of the 50 most-robocalled cities.

And according to a news release by the National Consumer Law Center, Florida is on pace in 2018 to exceed 2017’s record total of more than 2.2 billion received robocalls.

While Fort Lauderdale and Miami are among the nation’s largest population centers and would occupy top spots in any by-the-numbers rankings, several major metro areas ranked below 35th place, including Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; Pittsburgh; San Antonio, Texas.; Boston; and St. Louis.

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Sensitive to growing anger from consumers, lawmakers are searching for ways to tamp down the problem. New restrictions take effect July 1 in Florida.

The U.S. Senate is calling upon the major phone service carriers to get more active. And last month, a Senate committee subpoenaed Miami’s accused “robocall king” — who is facing a $120 million fine for allegedly making nearly 100 million robocalls in 2016 — to explain why robocalling continues to grow in such large numbers.

Asked why Florida logged five cities on YouMail’s top 50 most-robocalled list, Stephen Rouzer, the National Consumer Law Center’s senior communications strategist, said the state’s large population of seniors makes it an enticing target for scammers, while its low per capita income level makes residents more likely to use credit cards and payday lenders — industries responsible for large percentages of robocalls.

Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, added that “scammers will call more in areas where people answer scam calls and have proved to fall for them.”

Internet dialing via easy-to-obtain software is driving the increase in robocalls, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in an April 18 hearing.

The high-volume calling software, which makes phone calls over the internet rather than traditional copper-wire exchanges, has made it easy for rogue operators to route calls through overseas servers, skirting laws intended to protect consumers from robocallers, Thune said.

“These new technologies have also made it easier for scammers to hide from law enforcement and seek to gain their victims’ trust by displaying fake caller ID information,” Thune said.

By generating phony caller ID numbers with the same area codes as the destination numbers, the software tricks respondents into thinking they are being dialed from a local business.

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“The simple fact is the Do Not Call’ list is totally ineffectual against them,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

The April 18 hearing featured testimony from Adrian Abramovich, the Miami entrepreneur accused of making 96 million spoofed robocalls — in violation of federal law — over three months in late 2016 to sell “exclusive” vacation deals.

According to a complaint by the Federal Communications Commission, Abramovich deliberately falsified caller IDs to make targets think the calls were local, then programmed the recorded voices to convince targets they were calling from well-known companies such as Marriott, Hilton, Expedia and TripAdvisor.

People who pressed numbers seeking more information were instead transferred to foreign call centers and pitched vacation packages that often involved timeshares.

Facing $120 million in fines, Abramovich invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination at the hearing and denied all the charges against him. But speaking “generally,” he said robocalling software able to “make thousands of automated phone calls with the click of a button” is easily downloadable.

Also advertised online are companies offering long-distance carrier services that can handle “millions upon millions of calls,” he said.

“Clearly, regulation needs to address the carriers and providers and require the major carriers to detect robocalls activity,” Abramovich said before declining to answer questions from senators about his case.

At the hearing, Saunders pointed out that contrary to popular belief, scams are just a fraction of robocalls, and that most come from legitimate companies.

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“As can be surmised from the huge number of debt collection robocalls made in the U.S., one-third of all American consumers have accounts in collection,” she told the committee.

She noted that ACA International — a trade group representing collection agencies, creditors, debt buyers, collection lawyers and debt collection industry service providers — has been a primary driver of efforts before the FCC to roll back consumer protections in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Despite the seeming failure of regulators to bring robocalling under control, states and the federal government keep trying to rein in abuses. In the wake of numerous tweaks and updates to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, Blumenthal last month introduced a bill that would require phone carriers to offer effective tools to combat abusive robocalls at no additional cost to consumers, while continuing to allow recorded calls from legitimate emergency services.

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