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It’s 2020, so why am I still getting robocalls?

Robocalls are at best annoying. They can also be dangerous.

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Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. The FCC issued rules last year allowing phone companies to block robocalls.

Associated Press

Working from home, I have been marking my days by the telephone calls. If it’s 10:30 a.m., President Donald Trump will call.

Well, not really Donald Trump, but a robocall of him. At 11, I get another robocall from someone telling me about health care. By noon, I’ve gotten at least one warning that my car’s warranty has expired.

The worst day was when I got a call from some guy on the East Coast, threatening me with bodily harm if I didn’t stop calling and harassing him with robocalls. It was a Saturday morning. I hadn’t picked up a telephone all day, neither to send nor receive a call. But he would have none of that explanation, and I was glad we were separated by a couple of thousand miles.

My number had, of course, been spoofed by a telemarketing company, making it look as if this man’s caller ID was reporting my number.

And don’t get me started on the text messages from candidates running for office. I’ve replied “STOP” so many times my fingers have developed muscle memory for those keystrokes.  

If you’ve been following the news, you might be wondering why this problem still is with us. In mid-2019, the FCC issued a new rule allowing phone companies to block robocalls to your phone unless you specifically indicate otherwise. Almost a year ago, Trump signed the Traced Act, which was intended to make it easier for phone companies to form a coalition to help trace robocalls. Phone companies are supposed to be using an authentication service known as SHAKEN/STIR to keep people from spoofing random phone numbers.

Turns out, nothing is that simple.

A while back, I contacted Kevin McLean, an attorney with the Utah Attorney General’s office. The first thing he wanted me to know was that he gets these calls, too. 

“I get just as many as anybody,” he said. “I always find it ironic when they call my work phone.” 

Fraud, he assured me, is a constantly evolving line of work, and it isn’t all being done from within U.S. borders. Officials here are starting to work with telecom providers in other countries to stop the callers. But that isn’t easy.

In the meantime, there are other complications. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech. Not all robocalls are bad. I got one this morning from my pharmacy, telling me a prescription was ready. 

And political calls are, for the most part, allowed under the law as protected speech, although they are supposed to go mainly to landline phones. 

The difficulty, then, involves separating the good calls from the bad. Under the Traced Act, carriers are supposed to implement technology that allows the good calls to be authenticated and the unauthenticated to be blocked. It takes time to do this. As McLean told me, the technology has to account for new companies. Also, it may be hard to get it to work with the older technology often found on landlines.

Multiple agencies, states and private providers are working on this. It’s going to take a while, in other words.

Meanwhile, people have begun to change their behaviors. Mostly, they are learning to simply not pick up calls from unknown numbers.

The key is to restore America’s faith in its phone systems — enough so that people will begin again to answer calls from unknown numbers.

But this can be dangerous. Several news reports this week said contact tracers — those who are supposed to identify people infected with COVID-19, isolate them, then trace everyone who might have been exposed by those sick people and get them to quarantine — are having trouble getting people to pick up their phones. The reason: They assume it’s another robocall or a scammer.

That’s not an irrational fear. A lot of scammers are taking advantage of the pandemic. CNN reportedthat 3.8 billion robocalls were sent in September in the U.S. alone.

Yes, you can register on the national do-not-call list. I did that 16 years ago, and it doesn’t seem to have helped much. You can block numbers on your phone, but the scammers will just spoof a different one the next time.

For now, the hope is that the government and telecom providers eventually can perfect technology to separate the bad from the good, and find more effective ways to punish the people behind the bad ones. That, and we can breathe a little easier after the political season ends.

The key is to restore America’s faith in its phone systems — enough so that people will begin again to answer calls from unknown numbers.

That would make my workdays at home a little less predictable, but safer.