Louisiana is taking a stab at reining in all those unwanted phone solicitations with a new law that goes into effect Wednesday.
But even the law’s chief sponsor says it probably will do little good because government regulators and law enforcement are outgunned technologically by the telemarketers and scammers behind what one analyst calculates as roughly 62.7 calls per affected person in the last six months.
“This isn’t going to solve the problem,” state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco and chief sponsor of the law, told his colleagues when legislators were considering his bill in May. “But it will help with it if we catch one of them.”
Louisiana has a “Do Not Call” program that requires telemarketers to register with the Public Service Commission, which gives the salesmen a list of phone numbers of consumers who don’t want to be bothered.
Technological advances, however, have made that list somewhat anachronistic.
Computers can now dial phones automatically and give recorded messages — called robocalls. With a few exceptions, such as for political campaigns, the federal government has outlawed robocalls.
Add in Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, which most landlines now use. Solicitors can make inexpensive calls from virtually anywhere — other states, even other countries.
Plus, “spoofing” technology allows callers to fake local area codes, even prefixes, on the target’s Caller ID. Usually that’s enough to trick consumers into answering their phones, thinking it’s a local call, and it also fools law enforcement by hiding the real phone number from where the call originated.
Some sales pitches promise free cruises, extended warranties or lower credit card payments. Others warn of Internal Revenue Service audits, criminal investigations or fraudulent purchases that need to be cleared up.
At best, the calls are annoying efforts to make a sale. At worst, they are attempting to get personal information that can be used to fraudulently access financial accounts.
Consumers Union, part of Consumer Reports, estimates phone scams cheat people out of $350 million a year.
Despite being virtually illegal, YouMail, a company that sells software to block them, counted 20.3 billion robocalls this year alone across the nation. Usually about 2.5 billion calls are made each month. But in May and June, YouMail counted more than 4 billion calls each.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission receives three to five calls a day complaining about telemarketing and reports about 500 written complaints of illegal scams over the phones since 2013.
Louisiana’s new “Anti-Caller ID Spoofing Act” allows a victim to file a lawsuit against the person inserting false information into a caller identification system. The aggrieved can now recover up to three times the actual damages, get a court injunction to stop the calls and enough money to pay their attorneys.
The new law gives the state attorney general and local prosecutors more teeth to go after offenders by setting civil penalties up to $10,000 in addition to whatever sentence is received in the criminal realm.
“We are hopeful that the recent changes in the law will deter con artists from posing as legitimate persons and entities, such as local courthouses and federal agencies,” Ruth Wisher, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, said in an email. She wouldn’t provide the number of complaints received by the state Department of Justice, saying information about investigations is kept confidential.
“The revisions to the law provide Louisiana citizens, District Attorneys, and the Attorney General with a cause of action against persons that engage in spoofing,” Wisher said, but warned that spoofers often reside outside the United States.
“It is difficult to identify and catch them,” she said.
Louisiana isn’t the only state weighing in on the issue.
Connecticut approved a law, which goes into effect in October, that stiffens penalties for violating the state’s ban on robocalls.
One bill making its way through the Massachusetts General Court — that state’s legislature — would prohibit robocalls to cellphones and another measure would ban robocalls altogether.
New York and New Jersey are asking phone companies to block calls free of charge.
Bound by limited jurisdictions, states can do little in the overall scheme of things. The federal government has the financial wherewithal and legal ability to tackle an industry that crosses state lines.
The Federal Communications Commission — whose own chairman, Ajit Pai, once had his phone spoofed — reports that 60 percent of that agency’s complaints are about unwanted phone solicitations.
Lois Greisman, associate director for the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Marketing Practices, testified in April before a U.S. Senate committee that more than 4.5 million consumers had complained in 2017 — about twice as many as in 2013.
Greisman said changes in technology have enabled calls to be made more cheaply and on a larger scale than ever before.
FTC statement before U.S. Senate committee on abusive sales phone calls
The FCC and the FTC announced they are working with phone companies on a national level to develop counter-robocall-and-spoofing technology. Something along the lines of spam filters that Google and some email hosts provide to slow the flood of unsolicited emails. Or address verifications like Twitter and some social media companies use.
Those solutions are still several years off.
In the meantime, the best strategy is to just hang up, Kati Daffan, attorney at Federal Trade Commission, said in an agency video.
Pressing a number to be removed from the list, as many of the recorded messages include, only tells the salesman that it’s a phone where someone live is willing to listen to at least part of the pitch.
Louisiana’s PSC approves and passed a resolution asking the FCC and FTC to act.
Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, D-Bossier Parish, went into a store to buy feed for his horses Monday, and one of the customers came over to complain about getting sales calls on his cellphone. Soon, the other two customers in the store chimed in with their own stories, he said.
“Everywhere I go, I hear about these calls,” Campbell said. He tries to tell them that while the PSC regulates land lines, the Federal Communications Commission oversees cellphones.
Campbell, one of the chief sponsors of the “Do Not Call” law, said he’d like phone carriers to help come up with solutions.
“I’m going to bring it up at the PSC’s (Wednesday) meeting,” Campbell said. “I don’t know what, but we need to do something.”