BY MIKE W. RAY
Efforts to block the tsunami of obnoxious “robocalls” and “spam” telephone calls are under way at both the state and federal levels of government.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted almost unanimously – 429-3 – in favor of HR 3375, the “Stopping Bad Robocalls Act.” All five House members from Oklahoma endorsed the measure, which advanced to the U.S. Senate for consideration.
Meanwhile, robocalls will be the subject of an interim legislative study in the Oklahoma Senate. However, what remedies the state could impose are in question because all interstate phone calls, and even some intrastate calls, are the province of the FCC.
“What was once a rare annoyance has become an onslaught,” said U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City.
Hiya, a Seattle-based spam-monitoring service, calculated that roughly 26.3 billion robocalls were placed to U.S. phone numbers last year, up 46% from 18 billion unwanted calls in 2017. And one report last year projected that as many as half of all cellphone calls this year could be spam.
Hiya analyzed activity from 450,000 users of its app to determine the scope of unwanted robo-calling – and how phone users react when they receive an automated call.
College student loan promotions, claims that one’s Social Security number has been misused, offers of interest-free loans, various promotions of health-care plans for senior citizens, calls about credit-card balances – the list of robocalls and spam is infinite. Scammers disguised as the IRS “call unsuspecting people, telling them they owe taxes, all to try to get money out of the victim,” Horn lamented.
“It’s not only frustrating, it’s dangerous,” she said.
“We’re trying to find a way to limit spam calls,” said state Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, who joined state Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan, in requesting an interim study of robocalls. “I typically receive three to five calls a day that are a waste of my time and effort,” Howard said.
Scott indicated he wants to block all such calls entirely, but Howard’s goal is different. “What I’m looking at is the use of the local prefix for robocalls and spam calls,” he said.
Oklahoma has four area codes – 405, 580, 918 and 539. Cities and towns within those zones have local central-office prefixes for “land” lines and mobile phones, such as 482 and 471 in Altus; 529 in Medicine Park; 353, 355, 357, 248, 581 and 583 in Lawton; 521, 720 and several others in Oklahoma City; etc.
Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the agency received 7,852 complaints about robocalls in 2018, and has fielded more than 4,600 such calls so far this year.
States are allowed to regulate the transmission of telephone communications wholly within their state boundaries. However, in-state telephone facilities and services that are used to complete even a single interstate call can fall under FCC jurisdiction depending on the nature of that phone call. Thus, the FCC has authority to regulate use of an intrastate call made on a Wide Area Telecommunications Service [WATS] when that service is used as part of an interstate communications network.
“I don’t think total elimination of robocalls could ever happen,” said Tom Koralis, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Telephone Association [OTA]. “We’re not dealing with just ‘Mom and Pop’ organizations working out of a garage. We’re dealing with professional hackers who have millions and millions of numbers computerized.”
Spam calls are coming from overseas numbers in Belize; Lagos, Nigeria; Montreal and Calgary, Canada; from throughout the U.S., including New York, Nebraska, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Utah, Idaho and Colorado; and from Oklahoma towns, including Wellston, Wetumka, Wewoka, Alex and Chandler.
Howard said one of his concerns is “spoofing,” where the telephone number that’s generated may be outside the United States or even inside the U.S. but not in Oklahoma, yet the number that shows up on caller ID appears to be a local phone number.
“Even though the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission try their best, and have levied millions of dollars in fines against robocallers, when one is shut down ten new ones pop up,” Koralis said. “But maybe we can contain them to a certain degree.” Unfortunately “technology is way ahead of the curve on this,” he said.
The OTA represents 33 telephone companies and approximately 90 associated members, including vendors, attorneys, etc., Koralis said.
AT&T recently unveiled free robocall blocking for postpaid “smartphone” customers. Named “Call Protect,” the service blocks some fraud calls at the network level before they reach customers’ phones. In other cases, when it’s less clear whether the call is fraudulent, Call Protect doesn’t block the call but shows “suspected spam warnings on the incoming call screen which let customers choose whether or not to answer calls that originate from a suspected spam source,” AT&T’s announcement said.
At least for now the service is available only for AT&T postpaid wireless customers with iPhones or Android phones that support AT&T’s HD Voice technology.
“I don’t mind spam calls if I don’t have to answer them,” Sen. Howard said. “But when the number appears as a local prefix, I have to answer it because it might be from a constituent.”
Businesses and residences alike are plagued by these nuisance calls, he said.
Howard acknowledged that the FCC has regulatory authority over most telephone calls, but said his focus will be state legislation that would prohibit robocallers from improperly using local telephone prefixes.
The Howard/Scott interim study was assigned to the Senate Committee on Business, Commerce and Tourism and must be completed by Nov. 8.
A total ban on all robocalls could be extreme and counterproductive.
For example, many schools depend on robocall systems to alert parents when school buses will be delayed, or when school will be closed entirely, because of inclement weather.
And The Village, in north Oklahoma City, uses a robocall system to alert townspeople when a major street construction project will start, to notify a particular neighborhood when a waterline replacement project is scheduled to begin, and to solicit public opinions about local government issues.
The Village notification database has more than 3,500 residential and commercial land line numbers and approximately 200 mobile phone numbers, and is capable of notifying residents by telephone call, by text message and via email, City Manager Bruce Stone said.
According to Horn, HR 3375 would:
●Amend the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to ensure that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the authority and the tools to take strong, quick action when they track down robocallers;
●Allow consumers to revoke consent they had previously given to receive calls at any time and in any reasonable manner;
●Codify a reassigned number database to put robocallers on notice when a telephone number they may previously have been authorized to call has been given to a new customer who has not authorized their call;
●Limit the number of robocalls exempted from the TCPA under FCC rules;
●Require calls to have verified caller identification information associated with a call before the call can be put through; and
●Extend the statute of limitations from one year to four years for callers who violate robocall prohibitions.
HR 3375 “is a great first step in making sure that when we answer the phone, we know who is on the other end,” Horn said.
Mike W. Ray spent 45 years as a journalist on newspapers in Oklahoma and Texas, two years in public relations with Southwestern Bell Telephone, plus 19 years as a media director at the Oklahoma House of Representatives.