Politics & Government

Robocall battle: 40 attorneys general vs. ‘Heather from credit card services’

How many times have you heard this: “This is Heather from credit card services, calling with an important message about your account.”

And as it turns out, there’s no real Heather, the message isn’t important at all and you don’t even have an account. It’s just a computerized voice on the line trying to hook you into some shady scam.

That’s just one example of the more than 30 billion unwanted and illegal robocalls placed to Americans each year.

Seeking to get the situation under some kind of control, attorneys general from Kansas and 39 other states have joined in a working group to try to hang up those annoying calls that clog everybody’s phones.

The goal is to engage the telecommunications companies and the Federal Communications Commission to come up with a technical solution that goes beyond the conventional tactic of trying to track down and prosecute bad actors — which is next to impossible with thousands of bad actors spread across the globe, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Tuesday.

He said law enforcement can’t solve the robocall problem on its own.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt

“The lawyers and the law enforcers for the most part are not techies,” Schmidt said. “And that’s why this becomes a difficult challenge. When you need a technological solution, you have to engage people who are not in the law enforcement business. But in order to enforce the law, of course, you have to have people who are in the law enforcement business.”

The point of the multi-state effort is to “try to get those two different factions working together and pulling the same direction. And I’m pretty hopeful.”

The robocall explosion stems mainly from two technological advances. What used to be expensive long-distance calls now cost next to nothing when they’re placed via the internet using what’s called voice over internet protocol. Even a cheap computer can place thousands of VOIP calls an hour.

Plus, readily available software allows robocallers to “spoof” caller ID and blocking software, making a call from an overseas fraud mill look like it’s coming from just around the corner.

As a start, the attorneys general are pushing for implementation of a system called “SHAKEN/STIR” that targets spoofing and could be deployed as early as next year, Schmidt said.

The robocallers could still call, but you’d at least know the call’s not coming from your neighbor. You could then use your caller ID to screen or set blocks on unwanted calls from unrecognized area codes.

Other goals for the states:

Develop understanding of what other systems may be technologically feasible to stop unwanted robocalls and illegal telemarketing.

Encourage telecommunications companies to take a larger role in solutions.

Work with the FCC on regulations for the communications industry to minimize the problem.

The sheer numbers of robocalls and complaints about them have overwhelmed law enforcement’s ability to deal with the problem by conventional means, according to Schmidt and the attorneys generals across the country.

They outlined what they’re facing in a letter to the FCC:

“Our respective Consumer Protection Offices receive and respond to tens of thousands of consumer complaints each year concerning the disruptive and abusive nature of these calls,” the letter said. “We then attempt to identify and target potential wrongdoers.

“However, it is common for our efforts to be frustrated, as these types of calls travel through a maze of smaller providers. If the calling party is found at all, he or she is most often located overseas, making enforcement difficult.”

And lest you think anyone’s immune, even Schmidt, the state’s top law enforcement officer, gets robocalls, including:

A fake debt collector who threatened to sic the police on him if he didn’t pay a make-believe bill he didn’t owe.

A skeevy operator ostensibly raising funds for a Kansas group that Schmidt knew for a fact wasn’t running a phone fund-raising campaign.

A group that told him his father had recently committed to giving money to their political cause, “which I was pretty sure wasn’t true because Dad had been dead for years,” Schmidt said.

All unsolicited commercial robocalls are illegal and the damage goes well beyond inconvenience, according to the attorneys general.

Many robocallers “simply do not care about the law and have a more insidious agenda – casting a net of illegal robocalls to ensnare vulnerable victims in scams to steal money or sensitive, personal information,” their letter said. “In fact, reports indicate, of the 4 billion illegal robocalls made just this past August, 1.8 billion were associated with a scam.”

Those scams are estimated to have fleeced $9.5 billion from phone users in 2017. It’s expected to grow this year.

“Heather just lives on, no matter how many enforcement actions we all bring,” Schmidt said.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.