Opinion

The government needs to stamp out scam calls

On the average day over the last week, I received about four scam calls, with several leaving messages supposedly about how I could extend my car's warranty (I do not own a car). Others around the country report scammers impersonating Federal Reserve or public utility employees, threats of being arrested by the FBI if they don't pay up, promises of fake prizes, and on and on. It's a veritable epidemic of bottom-feeding crime.

The federal government needs to defend America's communication infrastructure and wipe these scammers off the face of the Earth. It's the bare minimum of what Americans should expect from our elected representatives.

Most obviously, scam calls are bad because some people do get tricked. After all, these calls wouldn't happen if they didn't work sometimes. People have reported losing thousands of dollars or even their entire life savings. Defending the citizenry from thieving criminals is a fundamental task of government.

But perhaps even more consequentially, the scammers are destroying a vital piece of public infrastructure. Being able to call people has been a vital way to communicate, for individuals, businesses, and government, for almost 150 years. Neither email nor texts have made calls unnecessary — on the contrary, with those typically also clogged up with spam, a call has become a useful way to signal importance and priority (or at least it used to be). If your plumber is at your front door, that's something you want to know immediately, rather than relying on a text notification you can easily miss.

Because most people don't fall for these scams, the criminals have to send millions and millions of calls to cast a wide enough net to find their victims. In recent years fully half of cell phone calls have been robocalls of some sort. As a result, like most people today, I virtually never answer my phone unless it's a number I already recognize. The phone system as a way for any citizen to reach any other has been nearly destroyed.

Now, it turns out that Congress actually did pass anti-scam call legislation back in 2019, the TRACED Act, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The idea was to stiffen penalties for violating laws against phone fraud and robocalls, require cell phone service providers to set up a more secure form of caller ID, and give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) more time to punish lawbreakers, among other changes.

I did not even notice this at the time (like many, I expect), because it seemed to have little impact on the number of scam calls I receive. Now, a few people have indeed been caught and fined since then — two men running a scam robocall operation in Texas were recently nabbed and slapped with a $225 million fine in March.

But the problem is plainly not even close to being solved. Local news is on the case: Several ABC affiliates, for instance, recently tried setting up new phone numbers in cities across the country, and within hours, the scam deluge started anew. An NBC New York affiliate found that doing any stories on robocalls will produce a flood of emails from viewers desperate for someone to stop their phones from ringing constantly.

The FCC is still in the grinding process of rolling out new rules and systems as instructed by the TRACED Act. Most importantly, in June the tightened-up caller ID system (called STIR/SHAKEN) will be implemented, which will supposedly make it much harder to illegally spoof phone numbers.

But as Walt Hickey argues at Insider, even that probably won't make much of a difference. The biggest problem is that a huge fraction of scam calls come from other countries. The FCC has few tools or authorities outside American borders, and thanks to lax regulation it is very easy for foreign operators to sneak into the U.S. phone network. Because automated calling technology has gotten so cheap, just one single bad actor can create billions of calls. Worse, the Supreme Court has (as usual) made it harder to crack down on scammers with two pro-scam decisions. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins raised a high barrier to suing illegal telemarketers, while Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid (decided this April) narrowed the definition of an illegal "auto dialer" under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to systems that call random or sequential numbers. The result will be more scam calls.

These rulings happened because a great many big business interests do not want vigorous protection of the phone system. Many companies rely on automated calls and texts for marketing, while others use them as part of their internal systems, and they want maximum freedom in both cases. "Facebook and Yahoo have an interest in not being sued when they fail to stop texts," Margot Freeman Saunders, a lawyer for the National Consumer Law Center, told Hickey.

At any rate, it would certainly be possible to eradicate scam calls even without some kind of international treaty. All that is needed is strict policing of America's internal phone system and the ways that it interfaces with those of other countries, and a government that will rate the public good above the convenience and profits of large corporations. Don't hold your breath.

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