A column by U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill
Hearing the phone ring can be a good thing—your kid calling from college, a friend calling to catch up. Or it can be a mundane call confirming a doctor's appointment, or the mechanic letting you know your car is ready for pickup.
But too often, at the other end of the line is an automated recording. An unsolicited, intrusive robocall—universally disliked, that's at best an interrupting annoyance, and at worst a deliberate, fraudulent scam.
I watched my mom get these calls. Even for a smart, assertive, opinionated woman like her, the calls were sometimes highly confusing. And it was clear that as a senior, she was being targeted.
In 2014, more than 38,000 Missouri consumers reported fraud and identity theft complaints, often coming from robocalls and phone scams. The Missouri Attorney General's office got 52,000 complaints last year alone about unwanted calls.
Consumers should be protected from these calls, and yet nearly 12 years after the establishment of the popular National Do Not Call Registry, fraudulent robocalls continue. Fraudsters employ ever-changing technology to hide or falsify the identity of the caller—making it easier for scammers to reach potential victims. And the country's top telecom regulator had, until recently, been considering attempts to dismantle the few consumer protections that do exist, and granting companies new power to send previously prohibited calls and text messages to consumers without consent.
This week, I teamed up with the Missouri Attorney General's office and redoubled my fight to protect consumers from these fraudsters. I also introduced a bipartisan bill that would better combat unwanted calls by strengthening enforcement actions and preventing scam artists from falsifying caller ID. The legislation would extend existing prohibitions to fraudsters outside the United States, as well as adapt to changing technology such as text messages and the Internet.
I renewed my efforts on this legislation as I was also helping to lead a hearing in the Senate Committee on Aging to crack down on “call spoofing,” the practice of deliberately falsifying the telephone number or caller ID to disguise the identity of the caller for harmful purposes. Spoofing is a practice that overwhelmingly affects Missouri seniors, who are most likely to rely on the phone. But it's unfortunately just one of a number of phone scams harming older Missourians.
In the Aging Committee, Republican Chairman Susan Collins—who is cosponsoring my bill—and I have also examined what officials have called the “largest, most pervasive impersonation scam in the history of the IRS,” in which criminals claim to be IRS officials and threaten victims with legal action or arrest unless immediate payment is made. The victims, many of whom are elderly Americans, have lost millions of dollars as a result of this scam. To date more than $112,000 has been stolen from 36 Missouri victims.
Fortunately, our efforts to crack down on these scams are starting to show results. A few weeks ago, we scored a major victory for consumers when the top telecom regulator agreed to tell phone companies they can legally employ commonsense robocall-blocking technology that will give consumers greater choice over the calls they receive. And regulators are poised to vote later this month to keep in place the critical protections they had considered scrapping, agreeing to preserve strong consumer protections that for more than 20 years has prevented auto-dialers from making unsolicited and intrusive calls.
But I'm going to keep fighting. Because we have to crack down on these fraudsters, and close the loopholes that let them to continue to prey on consumers.
When Missouri consumers opt out of robocalls, the phone should stop ringing.
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is a former prosecutor and Missouri State Auditor, and is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Aging.
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