POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

New law promises relief from annoying robocalls

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

A new federal law is offering hope for those besieged by solicitation and scam phone calls from numbers that look familiar but are not.

“I’m just hopeful that at some point, people will feel free to answer their phone and have confidence that the calls that are coming in are the real calls,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, the Democrat from Central Jersey who was a key sponsor of the measure.

The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, signed last week by President Donald Trump, is meant to stop the barrage of robocalls that mask their source, often displaying seemingly local or familiar spoof numbers on caller ID devices. The measure requires carriers to use technology that’ll authenticate the source of calls and allow consumers to block those they don’t want to take.

“It’s not just convenience, it’s a matter of safety,” says Ethan Garr of RoboKiller, a company that offers paid services to fight spam calls.

“These spammers spend all day looking for victims,” he said. “And when they find them, they’re relentless in trying to take money out of their wallet or steal their identity. And they can have really devastating effects.”

According to RoboKiller, 5.6 billion robocalls were made nationwide in November alone.

Under the TRACED Act, calls will be screened through technology called STIR/SHAKEN, which “digitally validates the handoff of phone calls passing through the complex web of networks, allowing the phone company of the consumer receiving the call to verify that a call is from the person making it,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“It will help carriers and others make better call-blocking decisions,” Garr said. “We’ll be able to use STIR/SHAKEN in our algorithm to help us decide whether a call is valid or not valid.”

Under the new law, carriers will have to offer this service and call blocking for free.

Verizon said it welcomes the law.

“Verizon has long been a proponent of this legislation and on behalf of our customers, we’re thrilled to see it cross the finish line,” the company said in a statement. “In 2019, we helped our customers avoid nearly 3 billion spam calls thanks to enhancements in our network like STIR/SHAKEN …”

A critical part of the new law will give the FCC regulatory powers that it previously didn’t have, including large fines and even steps that could lead to jail time for violators.

“The ability of the FCC to report to, and refer more cases to, the Department of Justice will provide some relief to consumers,” Garr said. “Because I think putting people in jail for some of these things will be a deterrent.”

Garr anticipates problems, though.

“Carriers are going to have a hard time deciding on your behalf what is a good call, a wanted call, and what’s not a good call, and what should be blocked,” he said.

Pallone says the law provides flexibility for the FCC to keep up with the technology.

“They can establish rules so that as the technology changes, that doesn’t allow the scammers to get around the law,” he said.

With the law’s changes not taking effect until next year, don’t count on those 18 to 20 calls a month going away anytime soon. In the meantime, experts warn, don’t ever provide sensitive information like your Social Security number or bank or credit card information to a caller over the phone. Instead, ask for written verification or a website that you can visit after you’ve hung up the call.