Tuesday, March 2, was a bad day for me — but a very good one for the robocallers and the phone scam artists and the spoofers.
The first call came at 8:30 a.m., but luckily it was labeled by my caller ID as “spam risk.” I ignored it. Soon after, a second caller, with a strong foreign accent, wanted to alert me that my Microsoft computers were at high risk of a virus.
But I don’t have Microsoft; we are an Apple family, I politely advised. No, he said, your computers are at risk. I yelled at him to leave me alone, reminding him that I am on the federal government’s “do not call” registry. He yelled back. I, in turn, cursed him. At an impasse, I told him I was reporting his number to the New York Attorney General. Then he cursed me. And hung up.
More calls came throughout the day. In fact, over a three-week period last month, I received a total of 44 landline calls and 24 of them were people entering my household, annoyingly and illegally, and trying to sell me car warranties, new windows, life insurance — in sum, nothing I solicited, nor wanted, nor needed.
One caller had partial information about my health and tried to use it to sell me a back brace, which, he insisted, was recommended by my former doctor, now retired. One caller had actually “spoofed” or stolen the number of my doctor’s office.
It could be worse. An opinion writer for The Washington Post reports that one day, before 10 a.m., she received 14 nuisance calls. No wonder the IRS recorded more than 718,000 reports of telephone scams in 2019, totaling $45 million in scam losses.
“The issue is people being harassed to death,” Margot Saunders, senior legal counsel to the National Consumer Law Center, told me. “We need to control the callers.”
Easier said than done perhaps. The Federal Communications Commission, which meekly regulates telephones, reports that in 2019 43.3 billion robocalls were placed, 18 billion more than the previous year.
Conservative South Carolina Democrat Sen. Fritz Hollings labeled robocalls “the scourge of modern civilization. They wake us up in the morning; interrupt our dinner; force the sick out of bed; hound us until we want to rip the telephone right out of the wall.”
My friends are going bonkers about the phone intrusions.
“Extended car warranties must be extremely profitable,” wrote my friend Bruce Alpert in Montana. “We get at least two phone solicitations a day for them. We buy them all. Of course, all this might make more sense if we had a car.”
He ended his Tweet with a happy face, but no one is really smiling.
After all, you are getting about 170 calls a year from spammers and fraudsters. So much so that the IRS now issues an annual list of the “Dirty Dozen” most common scammers.
Danny Wild, a photographer for USA TODAY Sports from New York, reported: “Today I got phone calls from India about a student loan, refinancing credit card debt, buying a new roof, an extended car warranty and one about my social security number being ‘compromised.’ Not to brag, but I think that’s basically the equivalent of hitting for the cycle in baseball.”
Jo Cicale, a retired reporter, howled: “BEWARE: just received a cell phone call from Officer Bumpkin advising that my SS number has been compromised and as a result my account is immediately closed. These calls that can prey on vulnerable people sicken me!”
And prey they do. More than 1.7 million Americans were victims of phone scams in 2019, losing $1.9 billion to fraud and $667 million to imposters. The Federal Trade Commission received 3.2 million complaints. And believe it or not, young people were scammed more than the elderly. Callers posing as IRS and Social Security agents, topped the list but the horror of COVID was complicated by people pushing a variety of virus-related scams.
What to make of this “scourge”? So many explanations. Profiteers run amuck. A regulatory system, try as it might, that simply cannot combat calls from all over the world. A tepid government that just won’t insist on the telephone companies putting into place technology that will block spammers. (The FCC does have authority to insist on this.)
And, finally, we have a U.S. Supreme Court that won’t declare the primacy of people over business. It had its chance in a 2020 case that involved businesses challenging a 1991 federal law blocking cell phone spammers. Business wanted to knock it out. The court settled on only killing a part of the law.
But in an era when Google tracks our online movement, Facebook puts our lives out to bid and Amazon knows what underwear I buy — when our privacy is being assaulted at so many turns — it was time for the Court to simply declare: Enough! But it did not. The judges meekly noted “Congress’ continuing interest in consumer privacy.”
You can stand in front of my house with signs, knock at my door to convert me to your religion, bombard me with advertisements, but you shouldn’t be able to enter my house without my permission and hawk products — or politics — I do not seek.
Privacy is a compelling need and it overrides the interests of freedom of speech. I agree with Saunders, who says, “Make it cost them when they call.” That means more fines and prosecutions, but it also means “a structural mechanism to control spoofing and other frauds.”
Large cell phone companies “have been much more aggressive in technology that identifies and blocks fraud,” Saunders points out. But the most protection I am getting from my landline provider Spectrum is a “spam risk” notification, sometimes. That Spectrum has a monopoly in my area of New York plays a part. The phone carriers are making money each time a robocall is placed. So, they are complicit and grubby, although not criminal.
As Saunders adds, convincingly, “Banks have developed robust fraud detection. So can phone companies. We have a rocket ship on Mars. You don’t think we can develop a mechanism to block these calls?”
And we should. It’s the most efficient and sensible way to end this serious nuisance. I shouldn’t have to download apps or get on no-call lists or curse some caller from overseas because I won’t buy his scam. Surely, James Madison did not have this in mind when he helped create the First Amendment.
Rob Miraldi’s writings on the First Amendment have won numerous state and national awards. He teaches journalism at State University of New York at New Paltz. This column originally appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal. Twitter: @miral98