WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even as members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee conducted a hearing on illegal robocalls last year, their cell phones buzzed with spoofed nuisance calls that appeared to be coming from their own telephone numbers.
“That’s how bad this has got,” marvels the top Republican on its Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Ohio’s Bob Latta of Bowling Green, who doesn’t answer his own phone unless he recognizes the number.
Latta says 48 billion robocalls were placed during 2018 — a 64 percent rise over two years. Without a robocall crackdown that Congress adopted before adjourning for the year, Latta predicts that number would rise to 60 billion.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the numbers of illegal calls that originate with a recorded message instead of a live person have exploded as internet powered phone systems make it easy and cheap for crooks to place the calls from anywhere in the world and to falsify their caller ID information. The bogus callers ignore whether a number is registered on the the “Do Not Call Registry,” which was was designed to stop lawful telemarketing calls.
According to the the National Consumer Law Center, a vast number of the intrusive calls are sales pitches from companies selling insurance, car warranties, home security systems, resort vacations and more, as well as debt collection calls that are often faked. Con men also use the calls to cheat consumers out of money or trick them into revealing information about themselves that can be used for other crimes.
Even hospitals are subjected to the scams. A representative of Florida’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute told Latta’s committee that scammers who claim to be from his institution are calling consumers across the nation to demand their insurance and payment information. Its physicians get fake calls that claim to be from the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging problems with their medical licenses and Drug Enforcement Agency numbers. The facility’s chief information security officer, Dave Summitt, said its phone company wouldn’t help its efforts to stop the calls without a court order.
“This activity constitutes a serious threat to patient care, in addition to disrupting business operations and facilitating financial fraud,” Summitt testified.
In December, the House and Senate signed off on the legislation Latta helped to draft by large bipartisan margins.
“They say around this place you can’t have bipartisan legislation,” Latta says. “Yes you can. This is not a Republican, it’s not a Democrat, it’s not an independent issue. It affects everybody in this country.”
The new law will require telephone carriers to provide free call-authentication technology to stop fake phone numbers from showing up on caller IDs, require companies to let consumers opt in or out of robocalls, and give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) power to boost enforcement actions against unlawful robocallers with higher fines and a longer statute of limitations.
It also pushes the U.S. Department of Justice to bring more criminal prosecutions against robocallers and requires the FCC to work on stopping “one-ring scams,” that happen when overseas con artists let numbers ring just once, hoping consumers will call back and incur hefty charges for doing so.
“It’s important that people out there know they can actually answer their phones without it being some fake spoofed call,” says Latta, who believes unwanted calls will dissipate as the law is implemented in coming months.
He says the law will also protect “good” robocalls, like appointment reminders from medical offices.
“When my kids were still in school, their biggest moment in the day was when Bowling Green city schools would call and say there’s no school today, or a two hour delay,” says Latta. “You want those calls to get through, because those are the calls that people want.”
Latta, who hopes to become the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Republican when Oregon’s Greg Walden retires at the end of this Congress, describes fighting “bad actors” as a “continuing process,” because they’re always devising ways to get around the law.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to stay ahead of the bad actors,” he says. “This legislation is a great step forward.”