I think we can all agree that there’s at least one thing more annoying than having snow on the ground in mid-April: receiving an abusive or illegal robocall. And it doesn’t matter if it’s April or September, there’s never a good time to receive one. In fact, unsolicited robocalls are among the top consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), two federal agencies under which my committee, the Commerce Committee, has jurisdiction.
Advancements in technology have made it easier for scammers to both take advantage of unsuspecting victims and elude the law enforcement professionals who are trying to crack down on this illegal behavior. Scammers and spoofers are often able to make calls from anywhere in the world, while creating the illusion they are coming from somewhere in your community. Last year, for example, the Watertown Police Department alerted residents to a spoofing scam in which the originating phone number was attributed to the police department itself.
We’ve all likely received one of these calls before. Your phone rings, a phone number with a familiar area code pops up, and you answer the call. It might be an automated message or a scammer himself. Maybe you’re told you’ve “won” an all-expense-paid European vacation for you and your family – a contest you didn’t know you’d even entered. Maybe a fake IRS agent or utility company claims you’re delinquent, and you owe them money. One of the worst is the “grandparent scam” where callers trick elderly Americans into believing a family member is in trouble and needs quick financial help. The tactics might vary, but these are all blatant attempts to trick innocent, unsuspecting Americans.
While scammers and spoofers frequently use robocalls to target their victims, not all robocalls have a malicious intent. You’ve probably received an automated call reminding you of an upcoming doctor or dentist appointment. Many pharmacies use robocalls to alert patients when a prescription is ready to be picked up, and important safety recalls are often transmitted via robocalls, too. These legitimate calls aren’t our concern, though.
There are few issues these days that garner significant bipartisan support in Congress, but protecting consumers from the bad actors who prey upon robocall victims happens to be one of those rare cases. I recently convened a Commerce Committee hearing during which we heard from folks whose job it is to combat illegal robocalls. We also heard from industry representatives who discussed ways consumers could stop receiving these calls in the first place.
One of the more headline-grabbing witnesses at our hearing ironically refused to pick up our calls – at least until we issued a subpoena for him to appear. Adrian Abramovich is currently facing $120 million in FCC penalties for allegedly making nearly 100 million robocalls throughout the country. He didn’t answer all of our questions and downplayed his culpability, but he did offer a few interesting insights into his practices.
If you think you’ve been the victim of a phone scam or have received a suspicious call, you should contact your local police department, and if you’re interested in being placed on the federal “do not call list,” visit www.donotcall.gov. It’s important to note, though, even if a phone number is on the list, consumers should always remain vigilant – remember, scammers don’t follow the law. You can also file complaints with the FTC and FCC and find more information about the steps they’re taking to protect consumers by visiting their respective websites. My office can help, too. Always feel free to give us a call.