In the 20 town halls I have held across our district so far this year — including here in Eastern Oregon — I can’t think of a time that someone didn’t ask the question, “How can we put a stop to unwanted robocalls?”
It is not surprising that this issue is a top concern for Oregonians and people across our country. In just one year, American consumers received 3.3 million robocalls per hour and these calls increased more than 64% between 2016 and 2018.
We all know how it feels. Multiple times each day, your phone will ring, showing an unfamiliar number with a familiar area code — say “541” for people in our district.
If you’re like me, you let the call go to voicemail, and if there is no message, it is safe to assume that it was a robocall. But it’s a disruptive nuisance, to say the least, and too often callers try to trick people into paying what they are told is an outstanding debt, only to send money or other form of compensation to a fraudster.
During an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday in Washington, D.C, witnesses described how robocalls have grown to a scourge on American consumers that perpetuate fraud, threaten personal privacy, and undermine our telecommunications system.
Dave Summitt, chief information security officer for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, testified during our hearing that doctors, patients and their families are targeted by thousands of spoofed calls a month. Callers use spoofed numbers identical to a hospital to try to obtain sensitive information.
Mr. Summitt’s testimony raises serious concerns. Say a cancer patient, already exhausted from treatment, answers a call from a number similar to her hospital’s. She hands over sensitive financial information to someone who identifies themselves as a hospital representative calling about a billing issue, and just like that, a robocall has turned a cancer patient into a victim of fraud. Or a doctor takes a call she thinks is from the hospital only to discover it’s a fraud.
We need an all-hands-on-deck, bipartisan response to tackle this problem. We started this effort last Congress when the committee I chaired passed the RAY BAUM’S Act, which prohibited spoofing calls or texts originating outside of the United States and bolstered the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to crack down on bad actors and protect consumers from robocalls.
This was just a first step, and we know more action is needed. First, we need harness the creative innovators in Silicon Valley, consumer groups and phone carriers themselves in a public-private partnership to use new technologies and to reform old federal laws. Additionally, Congress can act.
One proposal, the STOP Robocalls Act introduced by my colleague Rep. Bob Latta from Ohio, would allow all providers of all sizes to give consumers access to robocall blocking technology with the power to opt out. This matters, because it streamlines information sharing between private entities and the FCC, ensuring that the federal government and private sector are effective teammates in this fight.
Ultimately, these bad actors are already violating federal law, but we need to give the Attorney General full authority to prosecute these bad actors for the criminals that they are.
Aaron Foss, founder of the robocall combatting company Nomorobo, told the Energy and Commerce Committee that he agrees with this approach. “The problem isn’t with the legal robocallers, it’s with the criminals. Mr. Walden said that, these are criminals and criminals don’t obey the law,” Mr. Foss said during our hearing.
But as we go after the “bad guys,” Congress must take care to not unintentionally cut off the legitimate use of autodialing technology. Similar technology used for robocalls is used to protect the anonymity of a shelter assisting at-risk individuals, alert consumers of fraudulent use of their credit cards, and provide notices on school closures. It’s important that we make a clear distinction in targeting those with malicious intent as opposed to those who provide services that Americans rely on every day.
There is arguably no technology more personal than a telephone. Whether it’s the cell phones in our pockets or the landlines in our homes, these devices connect us with one another for business, health care, emergency information, or just to talk with a loved one.
When nearly half the calls made to cell phones in the United States in 2019 will be spam, that’s more than a nuisance — that’s a criminal violation that has done significant harm to Americans both personally and professionally. It’s time to redouble our efforts to find bipartisan solutions to hang up the phone on spoofed and malicious robocalls once and for all.