Bob Bestler

Hello? Robocall scams are so annoying they might just get Congress to cooperate for once

Robocalls are getting out of control, but you can protect yourself by knowing what to watch out for.
Robocalls are getting out of control, but you can protect yourself by knowing what to watch out for. AP

The bride and I both use cell phones exclusively, but when we moved to McClellanville, we needed a land line for our computer.

Within a couple of months, we disconnected the phone, leaving the line intact. In that short time, we had already grown tired of the constant robocalls that came into our home.

We still get them on our cell phones, of course, and they are still as annoying as ever.

I’m able to ignore most, but if I do happen to answer, I know in a second or two if it’s a robocall. There is a silence while the robocaller recognizes a human on the other side, always a giveaway.

So far as I can tell, the most persistent robocall I get is something about being late on repaying a student loan, which, of course, was repaid about 40 years ago.

In just the last year, people like us received 48 billion robocalls — many of them tech-support scams that cost consumers $55 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Those would be scams trying to get personal data or selling a worthless computer maintenance program. Often, the caller claims to be from Microsoft or Apple.

The sad thing is that it is the elderly that are hit the hardest.

The FTC said that in 2018, people 60 and over were five times more likely to report losing money to a tech-support scam, an average of $500 per scam.

Still, it was imposter scams that topped the FTC list of consumer complaints last year. These are scams in which con artists pretend to represent a government agency — the Social Security, say, or the IRS. Last year, these scams bilked consumers out of $488 million

Michelle Singletary, a Washington Post finance columnist, said scammers had “come up with schemes so clever and intimidating that consumers are handing over millions of dollars out of fear they will be arrested for not paying a tax bill or that their Social Security number will be revoked, stopping their monthly checks.”

Congress has been wrestling, off an on, with robocallers and telemarketers for decades. In 1991, you could put your name on a “do not call” list, but the plan was ineffective until its enforcement was turned over to the FTC in 2003. It helped curb telemarketers — live people selling actual stuff — but then came the robocall, an automated phone call with a recorded message that can reach millions with the press of a button from anywhere in the world.

Now Congress is trying again. One bill recently introduced in the House is called “Stopping Bad Robocalls.” A bipartisan proposal in the Senate carries the untidy name, “Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act.”

The Senate bill wants to make telephone companies get serious about identifying and blocking thieving robocallers and to find new ways to prosecute scammers.

As a co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, put it: “If this bill can’t pass, then no bill can pass.” It sounds like members of Congress are as sick of those slimy robocalls as the rest of us.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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