By Nathan Barton
I first heard of the so-called TRACED Act co-sponsored by Senators Thune and Markley, a week or so ago. It just passed the US Senate 97-1.
I have studied it and looked at some analysis, and I think it very clear that it will not do anything to stem the tide of spoof, spam, and robo-calls which is wrecking our communications system with billions of calls a month. And I have a personal and vested interest in these little packets of joy. We receive one to two DOZEN each day on average, including weekends. Since we have a business, we don’t have much choice, usually, about answering a call, even from an unlikely location. We can’t add hundreds of numbers to our “don’t accept” list with our phone providers, and we’ve actually spent hours with our carriers to try and fight it.
Scams, nationwide, account for 49+ percent of robocalls, but the other 50+ percent are legitimate (if sometimes unwelcome): reminding people of appointments, of late payments, and telemarketing. (In my experience, most telemarketing calls are “legit” even if real annoyances. Although too many telemarketing calls are political in nature, which is even more annoying.)
The bill, as usual with government efforts, does not do anything that will truly curb the epidemic, and includes provisions that penalize legitimate businesses who use robocalling for legitimate purposes. It requires that telecom companies verify claimed phone numbers, which requires a lot of equipment and programming, and costs time and money. (And guess who gets hit with the additional costs?)
It requires technology, but everything that is required almost certainly contains ways to work around them, from brute force (buying a lot of phone numbers), to corrupting the very equipment and software developed to make it EASIER to make robocalls and spoof calls. Thus making the plague worse.
It makes various things illegal. Assuming that the scammers, some of the telemarketers, and of course the politicians really care about obeying the law.
It increases penalties for those convicted of illegal calls. Assuming of course that you can FIND them and prosecute them – and win. And of course, assuming the perps to even be located in the Fifty States.
The senators and their staffs also just don’t get it. Thune, who is almost 60 himself, talks about “seniors” who are not tech savvy – never mind his own skill and age. He and Markley pretend to believe that dishonest people and criminals will voluntarily stop doing something just because it is now illegal. They also pretend to believe that companies in a crunch, (and frustrated because of the poor service their legitimate customers get due to robocalls) can be conscripted to suddenly come up with solutions just because there is now a law.
As we are finding out in social media, automatic filtering of calls and messages has some really bad downsides. And the filters can be coopted by those who do not want us to communicate with people that we WANT to talk with – about religion, politics, or guns, for example. In addition, it backfires. Some of the spoofing calls I’ve gotten over the years appeared to come from phone numbers of people that I actually know. Just because I get a call from 605-555-xxxx that is trying to get me to pay a bogus tax bill, does not mean that I don’t need to answer the next call from 605-555-xxxx which is one of my supplier’s phone numbers!
So what can be done? If the laws don’t work, and we can’t depend on current technology, and the ISPs and telecoms are stymied? What can we people do? We who are interrupted constantly to hear automated voices tell us about our Google listing or our free vacation from Marriott, or whatever it is that Cardholder Services wants us to do. And we who are interrupted by people with strong Pakistani or Nigerian-accented English who tell us our computer is compromised, or our Social Security account has been frozen, or the IRS is sending the local police to arrest us? Or who get calls from people with cultured British voices who want us to invest in fine wines?
First, we can use common sense to evaluate all calls and (a) decide which to answer, and (b) choose which to answer and immediately hang up on.
Then we can warn (again and again) our naive relatives and friends about the latest versions of Nigerian scams and phony IRS calls. If there were not enough people FALLING for these scam calls that the scammers and spoofers are living well off their “contributions,” the attraction and volume would drop off.
Third, we can look for and find technology under OUR control that can help us filter and deal with these things. So that the systems can’t be used against us. Remember that we already have a great deal of technology help. In the days before caller ID (especially on cellular phones), we usually couldn’t tell who was calling without answering.
Fourth, we can stop trusting government to solve problems for us. We waste an enormous amount of our income on paying for government schemes to “help” us, directly (through taxes) and indirectly (through increased regulatory costs that get passed on to us). Bad as the telecoms can be, we at least (mostly) still have the market and competition working FOR us, and we can vote with our dollars.
And most of all, we can refuse to encourage the scumbags that are doing this calling (whether it is political or commercial or regulatory) by NOT buying what they are selling, either at the store, on-line, or at the voting booth.
But at the same time, I ask readers for their ideas. Eventually, in a climate of freedom and liberty, I am confident that some persons will invent many ways to deal with this mess. Let us encourage and reward those who are trying to do so.