WASHINGTON — The maddening nuisance of spam robodialers is well known to anyone who has experienced a flurry of random calls from Slovenia or Azerbaijan.
Or maybe the caller ID is “spoofed” to indicate a local call, but the unfamiliar voice on the other end is asking for a credit card number to address money due the IRS.
With the volume of such calls exploding these days — 48 billion made in 2018 — consumers are shouldering most of the burden to protect themselves from annoyance or serious fraud, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson testified Thursday.
“They have downloaded apps for their smartphones or enrolled in a service provided by their carrier — yet the problem continues to grow,” Peterson said. “So we must do more.”
Peterson was among the witnesses at a Senate Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing highlighting a push for the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act.
Peterson has helped lead his fellow state attorneys general in urging passage of that legislation, aimed at mitigating illegal robocalls and spoofing.
It would require voice service providers to use call authentication to help block unwanted calls, as well as create an interagency working group and make changes intended to help federal regulators come down harder on bad actors.
The Commerce Committee unanimously advanced the legislation last week, and it has already garnered the bipartisan support of about half the Senate.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is a member of the Commerce Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. At Thursday’s hearing, she asked Peterson about how to get to the root of the problem.
“It is so irritating to have these calls 24 hours a day from numbers that you think must be a neighbor calling,” Fischer said. “They spoof you on it.”
Experts say the solution lies in a mix of technology and aggressive enforcement of prohibitions on the activity.
Peterson said those behind the robocalls often see government fines as simply the cost of doing business, so criminal penalties could be more effective than civil action — but even that is no silver bullet.
“One of the challenges, whether or not it’s a civil penalty, or a criminal penalty, is the ability to get our hands around these people ... to actually get them in a headlock,” Peterson said. “That’s not easy to do.”
Another part of the balancing act is trying to ensure that legitimate calls, including automated ones, aren’t caught up in the blocking.
Many people, after all, appreciate robocalls when they’re conveying flight delay information, credit card fraud alerts or a doctor’s appointment reminder.
Backers of the bill say they will be working through those concerns but don’t envision significant changes to the bill as they try to move it quickly through the Senate.
Peterson stressed the role of technology in identifying and blocking illegitimate calls.
“Stopping illegal calls before they reach consumers is especially important because, unlike legitimate callers, these nuisance callers will not be deterred by the prospect of enforcement, knowing that they will be very difficult to locate,” Peterson said.