LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Can Congress stop the scourge of robocalls?

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

The nationwide plague of 5 billion monthly robocalls, 138 million of them in New Jersey, now threatens the health and safety of Americans, according to advocates, particularly the elderly, like Beverly Brown Ruggia’s 96-year-old mom.

“She does not answer the phone. We have to track her down, asking neighbors to go check on her. It’s really quite dangerous in terms of her care,” Ruggia said.

“So many people say, ‘I don’t answer the phone’ and it may be an important call. And when I say, they don’t answer the phone, they don’t answer it at all,” said Rep. Frank Pallone.

Pallone is sponsoring a bill to crack down on robocallers. He cited one case where they flooded a Tampa medical center with 6,600 calls in a single month, or when they’ve scammed victims by posing as education loan consolidators or IRS agents.

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“They’re particularly damaging to seniors and vulnerable consumers such as immigrants who are trusting and may be taken in by scams which run in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars each year,” said Chuck Bell, programs director of the advocacy division at Consumer Reports.

Pallone’s legislation, HR 3375, would combat robocallers by arming the FCC with an extended statute of limitations — three years instead of just one, ensuring consumers can refuse to receive unwanted calls and enacting safeguards against companies that abuse exemptions to the do-not-call list. The bill’s similar to one sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez which passed the Senate in May.

“It’s a threat because what does that mean? Somebody’s trying to reach you — it’s an emergency, it’s a health issue, whatever — you don’t answer the phone anymore and that’s not a good thing,” Pallone said.

The bill also requires carriers to use call authentication technology and provide call blocking services to consumers at no charge — a feature now offered voluntarily by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. Consumer protection experts recommend users activate those free carrier services, plus place themselves on a do-not-call list and also consider downloading a robocaller-blocking app like YouMail, Nomorobo or RoboKiller.

Pallone held his event at TelTech’s RoboKiller’s New Jersey headquarters. Their app not only shuts down robocalls, it also ties up their computer server with chatty bots.

“During that time, not only are we protecting our consumer, our customer, but we’re also protecting someone’s elderly grandmother who’s not going to be able to get a call from that person during that time,” said Ethan Garr, co-inventor of RoboKiller.

At $29 a year, Robokiller’s the priciest of the bunch, but they’re all faster than Congress. Both the Pallone and Menendez bills are working their way through the Congress and both can call on bipartisan support.