Hang­ing up on robo­calls

Mem­bers of Congress have good rea­son to agree on these bills.

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS -

FOR­GET A dystopian ro­bot fu­ture. The present, in which it is im­pos­si­ble to sit down to din­ner with­out a ma­chine call­ing your smart­phone, is trou­bling enough. The scourge of robo­calls has wors­ened in re­cent years, but stir­rings in Congress sug­gest spam-slammed Amer­i­cans may fi­nally find some re­lief.

Con­sumers frus­trated with the con­stant flow of un­wanted calls have tech­nol­ogy to thank. Gone are the days when clunky hard­ware meant au­to­di­al­ing was a has­sle, and when long-dis­tance fees could cost a mar­keter more than they could hope to make. Now, spam­mers can tar­get thou­sands of phones an hour with only a click, al­most for free, no mat­ter where they are — and spoof­ing soft­ware al­lows them to do it while con­ceal­ing their iden­ti­ties. Any so­lu­tion, then, will have to tackle two prob­lems at once: run-of-the-mill spam­mers who do not spoof and the fraud­sters who use fake num­bers for their scams.

Thank­fully, pro­pos­als in both cham­bers of Congress of­fer some hope. Rep. Frank Pal­lone Jr. (D-N. J) in­tro­duced a bill in the House last week clos­ing the loop­hole on au­to­di­alers who to­day take ad­van­tage of out­dated le­gal lan­guage. That should de­ter le­git­i­mate busi­nesses from abuse. As for the spoofers, ma­jor car­ri­ers could de­ploy a tech­nol­ogy as early as this year that will tell con­sumers whether an in­com­ing call comes from a ver­i­fied num­ber. FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai had al­ready urged car­ri­ers to adopt these au­then­ti­ca­tion sys­tems, but he stopped short of man­dat­ing it. Mr. Pal­lone’s bill would do just that, as would leg­is­la­tion in the Se­nate co-writ­ten by Ed­ward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and John Thune (R-S.D.). And Mr. Pal­lone’s sen­si­bly would re­quire phone com­pa­nies to pro­vide block­ing ser­vices against spoofers free of charge.

The bills would also help with en­force­ment: The House pro­posal would grant the FCC the abil­ity to fine rule-break­ers at first of­fense, and the Se­nate coun­ter­part would al­low the agency to levy fines of $10,000 per call, up from $1,500. Both bills would ex­tend the statute of lim­i­ta­tions on vi­o­la­tions.

The Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion could ben­e­fit as well from ad­di­tional au­thor­ity, not in­cluded in ei­ther bill, to go af­ter telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies that are grossly neg­li­gent in stop­ping robo­calls on their ser­vices. Re­sources to fa­cil­i­tate in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion, of­ten nec­es­sary for catch­ing a scam­mer, are also cru­cial.

Robo­calls of­fer an easy op­por­tu­nity for bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus. Af­ter all, politi­cians have not been spared from the on­slaught of un­wanted ring­ing. Leg­is­la­tion that com­bines the most promis­ing as­pects of the House and Se­nate pro­pos­als, carv­ing out ap­pro­pri­ate ex­cep­tions for le­git­i­mate uses of au­to­di­al­ing, would be a win for every hu­man against to­day’s most both­er­some bots.

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