Hung up on stop­ping robo­calls

More help is needed to in­ter­cept them, in­clud­ing those from EBay and PayPal

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - DAVID LAZARUS David Lazarus’ col­umn ap­pears Tues­days and Fri­days. He also can be seen daily on KTLA- TV Chan­nel 5 and fol­lowed on Twit­ter @ David­laz. Send your tips or feed­back to david. lazarus @ latimes. com.

If you’re be­ing driven crazy by robo­calls, help may be on the way.

Sen. Claire McCaskill ( D- Mo.) has in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to strengthen the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­mis­sion’s abil­ity to crack down on what’s be­come a high­tech pain in the tuchis.

“These calls can be an­noy­ing or frus­trat­ing to many of us, but they can be much more dev­as­tat­ing to those, es­pe­cially se­niors, who fall vic­tim to them,” McCaskill said.

Her bill would give the FCC more en­force­ment au­thor­ity, al­low­ing it to slap harsher penal­ties on robo­callers.

It also would ex­tend the agency’s reach in crack­ing down on so- called spoofers — robo­callers that hide their iden­tity from caller ID sys­tems or ap­pear as a call you’d want to take, such as from your lo­cal po­lice depart­ment or a nearby hos­pi­tal.

For its part, the FCC is try­ing to get phone com­pa­nies more in­volved. It an­nounced last week that tele­com firms “face no le­gal bar­ri­ers” in adopt­ing tech­nolo­gies aimed at fil­ter­ing robo­calls.

The need for help from on high was un­der­lined by EBay and PayPal, both of which re­cently an­nounced that they were mod­i­fy­ing their terms of ser­vice to al­low “auto- di­aled or pre­re­corded calls or text mes­sages” to con­tact users.

That’s ex­actly what it sounds like. EBay and PayPal, which are now in the process of split­ting apart, are re­serv­ing the right to robo­call you. They say they might do this to col­lect debts, of­fer pro­mo­tions or ask sur­vey ques­tions.

EBay’s con­tract change took ef­fect last week. PayPal’s will kick in July 1.

This is messed up on a num­ber of lev­els, not least that these guys should know bet­ter. Con­sumers have made it clear, loudly, that they don’t like be­ing both­ered in this man­ner. The FCC says it re­ceived more than 215,000 com­plaints about robo­calls last year.

New York Atty. Gen. Eric Sch­nei­der­man con­tacted EBay and PayPal seek­ing more in­for­ma­tion about their in­ten­tions.

“Con­sumer choice and pri­vacy pref­er­ences are pro­tected by state and fed­eral laws — in­clud­ing laws that specif­i­cally aim to stop com­pa­nies from us­ing in­va­sive robo­calls to pro­mote prod­ucts to con­sumers who do not wish to re­ceive them,” said Melissa Grace, a spokes­woman for Sch­nei­der­man.

“The at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice will seek to stop un­law­ful breaches of pri­vacy and en­force the rules that pro­tect con­sumers,” she said.

Un­for­tu­nately, robo­calls fall into a gray area of the law. At least when spoof­ing is in­volved.

Fed­eral law for­bids us­ing telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment “to cause any caller iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ser­vice to know­ingly trans­mit mis­lead­ing or in­ac­cu­rate caller iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in­for­ma­tion with the in­tent to de­fraud, cause harm or wrong­fully ob­tain any­thing of value.”

That would seem to rule out all spoof­ing. The prob­lem for con­sumers is that courts have ruled that “non- harm­ful” spoof­ing is OK. For ex­am­ple, a shel­ter for do­mes­tic- abuse vic­tims might want to mask its phone num­ber, or a psy­chol­o­gist might want to with­hold her home num­ber from a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous pa­tient.

Some tele­mar­keters have ar­gued that since their in­tent is merely to con­tact some­one, not de­fraud them, their spoof­ing is sim­i­larly non- harm­ful.

McCaskill said nearly all le­git­i­mate tele­mar­keters honor the fed­eral do- not- call list. She said many robo­calls these days are from over­seas scam­mers who in­tend to cause harm by cheat­ing you out of money.

Her bill would ex­pand the scope of cur­rent spoof­ing rules to ap­ply to any­one out­side the coun­try who tar­gets a U. S. res­i­dent. It also would in­crease the penalty for robo­call vi­o­la­tions to $ 25,000 from $ 16,000 per call.

“Any so­lu­tion to this prob­lem has to in­volve in­creased penal­ties and pros­e­cu­tions for vi­o­la­tors, along with hav­ing phone com­pa­nies fi­nally of­fer robo­call block­ing ser­vices that their cus­tomers clearly want,” McCaskill said.

Just be­cause U. S. reg­u­la­tors would have the au­thor­ity to go af­ter over­seas scam­mers, that ob­vi­ously doesn’t mean teams of com­man­dos would be raid­ing the of­fices of spoofers world­wide.

At best, it po­ten­tially would give Amer­i­can of­fi­cials a piece of the ac­tion if a for­eign gov­ern­ment cracked down on a spoof­ing op­er­a­tion, which sel­dom hap­pens in places where the prac­tice is com­mon.

What EBay and PayPal are do­ing is more trou­ble­some. These aren’t over­seas scam­mers. They’re a cou­ple of the best- known com­pa­nies in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Nor are they try­ing to de­fraud any­one or cause harm, though in­ter­rupt­ing peo­ple’s din­ners with robo­calls might be deemed harm­ful by some.

Mike Wag­ner, a PayPal spokesman, said the com­pany strives “to be as clear as pos­si­ble with our cus­tomers” and that any­one who doesn’t want to be both­ered “can choose not to re­ceive auto- di­aled or pre­re­corded mes­sage calls.”

How­ever, there’s noth­ing in the re­vised terms of ser­vice that says you can opt out of robo­calls. To learn this, you’d have to read a PayPal blog post that in­structs you to con­tact cus­tomer sup­port.

No one at EBay re­turned my calls and emails.

It seems clear that robo­calls can’t be cut off at the source. The best bet for con­sumers is to in­ter­cept them be­fore they reach peo­ple’s homes, just as the most ef­fec­tive way of ad­dress­ing email spam is for In­ter­net ser­vice providers to block un­wanted mes­sages be­fore they reach sub­scribers.

Law­mak­ers and reg­u­la­tors are in agree­ment: More needs to be done to stop robo­calls. They’re do­ing what they can. It’s now up to phone com­pa­nies to do their share in pro­tect­ing cus­tomers.

I asked AT& T and Ver­i­zon about their plans. Both com­pa­nies de­clined to com­ment.

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