Reining In Robocalls: Law Enforcement & Tech Industry Team Up

Sep 3, 2019

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Americans receive billions of robocalls. Some are legitimate, many are scams. Now state and federal officials, as well as telecommunications companies, are all pledging to collaborate against fraudulent calls.  We examine these efforts and how effective they might be. 

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Related Reading

New Hampshire's Attorney General Gordon MacDonald recently announced an agreement on eight principles among all attorneys general and phone companies to fight illegal robocalls.  These principles include: implementing call-blocking technology at the network level at no cost to consumers and implementing technology to authenticate callers are coming from a valid source. 

House and Senate lawmakers have both passed measures to combat robocalls, increasing the odds that Congress could send the White House a bill before 2020. 

For extensive coverage of robocalls, check out reporting by Octavio Blanco of Consumer Reports. Here are some recent articles: Following an FCC ruling addressing robocalls, Blanco offers several ways to protect yourself while these new rules take hold. 

From the N.H. PUC:  How to protect yourself from utility scams.

Visit USTelecom's Robocall Action Center.

The National Consumer Law Center tracks collects robocall data, state-by-state

Read about Stir/Shaken technology, which aims to catch spam calls. 

Transcript

  This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. Americans received an estimated 48 billion robo calls last year, an annoyance, to be sure, but also a huge source of financial scams and identity theft. So this summer, federal and state officials vowed to take action. In June, the Federal Communications Commission unveiled its plan to help phone companies and consumers block unwanted calls in late August. Attorneys general from all 50 states and D.C. announced an agreement with a dozen telecom firms to crack down on illegal calls. And this fall, U.S. House and Senate are expected to finalize robocall legislation which has already passed both bodies with bipartisan support. But how much will these efforts reduce the volume of calls? And how will they weed out the bad actors from legitimate, for example, that automated voice calling from your pharmacy saying that your prescription is ready? Robo calls. That's the topic today in the exchange. And let's hear from you.

Laura Knoy:
With me in studio for the hour, Brandon Garod, senior assistant attorney general and chief of The AG's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau. Brandon, it's really nice to meet you. Thank you so much for being here. And joining us on the phone is Patrick Halley, senior vice president of advocacy and regulatory affairs at U.S. Telecom, which represents telecommunications related businesses. And Patrick, a big welcome to you, too. Thank you for your time. My pleasure. And gentlemen, let's just wrap our heads around that number I gave for a moment, Brandon. The most often quoted estimate from a company called you mail. Forty eight billion with a B robo calls made to American phone numbers last year. Wow. Who's making these calls, Brandon? What do they want?

Brandon Garod:
Well, that's a great question. I think they want a variety of different things. First and foremost, they want your money. Most robo calls. We call them robo calls. It's usually a pre-recorded call that is mass distributed to thousands of people at a given time. And the point is either to get personal information like names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth or to trick the person into sending money, usually overseas.

Laura Knoy:
So I read from I think it is the National Consumer Law Center. Brandon, that about half of these robo calls, which sounds bad and sounds like a scam, but half of them are from legitimate companies. Comcast, Capital One, other big banks. So what's the difference between sort of a Social Security scammer and Comcast?

Brandon Garod:
Well, so robo calls have been around for a long time and for a long time they served a very legitimate purpose. In fact, then they're referred to as telemarketing. You know, Comcast or Capital One, you know, sending out mass phone calls to various people, trying to solicit legitimate business. The difference is that scam artists have used technology in order to essentially disguise who they are, in order to use illegitimate methods to try to trick people into giving them money. You know, Capital One may be calling you to see if you want to sign up for a credit card. However, a scam artist might be calling you from overseas, pretending to be the IRS and trying to trick you into sending the money for back taxes that you don't actually owe.

Laura Knoy:
So what is the effort that the attorneys general of all 50 states plus D.C., what kind of calls is that effort aimed at?

Brandon Garod:
So the problem that has developed with robo calls is that as technology has improved, the technology has now been used by scammers or to trick people into thinking that somebody's legitimate is calling when it's really somebody illegitimate. And they do this by this technique called neighborhood spoofing, which means that you could be in Concord and you can get a call from somewhere in India or somewhere in Asia, and it'll say Concord, New Hampshire. So you pick up the phone thinking that it's a local cause.

Laura Knoy:
It's relatively new, by the way. I just started noticing this a couple of years ago. Yeah. Go ahead.

Brandon Garod:
And so it's a technological problem. You know, people used to be able to trust their caller I.D.. They used to be able to look at it and decide whether or not they want to take a call based on where it's coming from. People can no longer do that. So the attorneys general and the telecommunications companies recognize this problem, which is that you have illegitimate calls that are disguising themselves as legitimate calls. And we need to be able to re arm people with the ability to trust their caller I.D. and be able to screen calls based on where they're coming from. So the effort that was made to combat this is implementing technology that will give consumers the ability to trust that the number that shows up on their cell phone is actually the number that it's coming from. It's called authentication. And so it took a while to develop the technology. And it's going to take a little while to get that technology implemented across all of the major telecommunications carriers. But that is the effort that the attorneys generals offices spearheaded actually by the New Hampshire attorney general's office have been engaged in over the past almost two years.

Laura Knoy:
I'd love to bring you in to Patrick. So. Who are we aiming at here? Who's the sort of fat, bad actor in this group?

Patrick Halley:
That's a great question. You know, I think a lot of people assume that when they get a phone call, you know, if they're not a Verizon customer consolidated our team over somebody that just, you know, the entity that's calling them. I went straight from them directly to the district, from the originator of the call, directly to them. Right. To be their carrier. And the reality is, that's not really how the telephone system works. Right. So you've got people who are generating these calls and these are often companies that none of us have ever heard of. Right. Who's gotten a list of phone numbers and they're auto dialing, you know, you know, several million phone calls in a single day. And who are those companies? A lot of people don't know. And that's one of the main thing that U.S. Telecom my organization does, is we have a program called the U.S. Telecom Industry Trace Back Group. And our whole effort is to coordinate with carriers, to identify the source of calls, because the way this really works is, you know, some some person, whether they're in India or somewhere else, or you'd be surprised there's a lot of these illegal calls that originate in the United States. Well, we'll partner with a platform, you know, so often a voice over IP enabled technology that is able to generate millions of calls in a short amount of time. Those calls don't just automatically end up at your doorstep on the carrier that you have a relationship with the customer. What happens is they have different, there are multiple hops, if you will. So, you know, the person who originated the call has a deal with somebody, a different carrier, but probably somebody you've never heard of some wholesale provider.

Patrick Halley:
And then it goes from them to somebody else to somebody else to somebody else. And then it ends up on your doorstep, a call that you're receiving. And you don't have any idea who it is. And so was one of the things that we'd been doing at U.S. Telecom is this they want to figure this out. Let's figure out who's actually originating all these calls. And so our traced back group basically is an effort and industry coordinated effort where we identify from the final carrier that received the call. Well, who did you get it from? Great. Who did you get it from? Great. Who did you get it from? Until we get all the way up to the origination of the on the call and we can figure out who the originating carrier was. And oftentimes, you know, who the actual business was that generated these calls. And usually they're legal and usually there are millions. And so what we tried to do was educate those people. Hey, do you realize you're making the legal calls? Sometimes they respond. Sometimes we get no response. And our job in that process is to educate all of the carriers in that sort of ecosystem as to who the bad actors are. And part of that effort and one of the reasons we are so happy to join the state ages was part of our effort as it is to provide information on folks who are blatantly and totally illegally breaking the law and providing that information to our partners in the enforcement world.

Laura Knoy:
Ok. So let me see if I understand. So this effort, Patrick, is telling the carriers, the telecommunications companies don't provide the infrastructure, the highway, so to speak, for these particular actors. Is that right?

Patrick Halley:
Yeah. It's first and foremost is we figured out who is the entity that's generating this. And then as as we do first know the first and we try to work with folks who say, look, there are laws that prevent you from dialing numbers that are on the do not call list. There are laws that prevent you from doing telemarketing without announcing where you are. You can't do a prerecorded message to a mobile phone without consent of the customer. There are a lot of laws out there, right? Some of them you'd be surprised. Maybe they didn't know. All right. A lot of them they know and they don't care. Right. And they're blatantly just ignoring the law. So first and foremost, as we try to identify who they are, make sure that if we can, we try to educate them so that these calls stop. But oftentimes the non-response or, you know, even after we've identified that calls are illegal, they continue. And in that instance, yes, we then try to provide information to essentially the downstream carriers to say, you know, you should be aware of the practices of these entities. And there they are, you know, pretty vigilant and trying to take action to to try to get that traffic off their networks because they don't want these calls. Look at the end of the day, Verizon and Consolidated, you know, serving New Hampshire and T-Mobile and AT&T and these guys, the last thing they want is for their customers to be inundated, right? Their networks that are being abused and their customers. And I think there's a misperception that somehow it's sort of the fault of the carriers who are receiving the calls when in reality it's actually the carriers who are enabling the calls further upstream and those platforms that are originating millions of calls. And that's what we're trying to go after.

Laura Knoy:
So there's something I'd love to clarify with the two of you. Patrick, you first, please. Is the target of your effort, then the scams, the illegal calls, or is it the overall volume of calls, even those from perfectly legitimate banks who want to sell you more credit cards because Americans are complaining about both. Obviously, I don't want to be, you know, scammed out of their IRS refund, but they also just don't want to be bothered constantly by somebody trying to sell them something, even if it's a legit businesses. So what is this aimed at?

Patrick Halley:
It's a great question because they're really, truly is a wide spectrum of robo calls. Right. What is a robo call? Right. A robo call is essentially an automated call made using, you know, technology, that enables multiple calls to be made at one time. Right. So, look. Government officials use this technology to have telephone town halls where they can get 10000 constituents on the phone at the same time to talk about the opioid epidemic and things that are being done to prevent it. Right. That's a good thing, right? Bank fraud. School closings. I got one involving my son when they were on lockdown because of a situation. I obviously wanted to get that call. No carrier wants to block that call. So there's there's a series of calls that we want to make sure to get it right. And one of the reasons we're so focused on identifying the most egregious illegal callers is because we get that traffic off our network. People will actually trust the phone system again. Right. And be willing to answer calls. So we're certainly not focused on what are clearly legal calls. We are very much focused on calls that are clearly illegal. Right. As I said there, if there's a truth in caller I.D. Act, it prevents using spoofed numbers with the intent to defraud. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which has restrictions on time of day for certain telemarketing calls or preventing prerecorded messages to mobile phones without the consumer's consent. So people that are violating the law will obviously we want to prevent that. And then there's that middle ground, which is calls that are not illegal. Right. Like telemarketing. They're annoying. Tell you something. Yeah, they're annoying. So in that instance, the consumer should have the right to be empowered to say, I don't want those calls.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and the do not call list doesn't seem to do anything in terms of blocking cops. I mean, it's you know, it's.

Patrick Halley:
Yeah. Because the people that are making calls to people who are on the do not call list. They don't care. They're doing it purposefully, you know, it works for legitimate businesses who actually check the do not call us. But for those who don't care and are blatantly breaking the law, that it doesn't have any effect. But what we can do is increase the consumer's awareness of who's calling them. So in addition to the sort of efforts to trace back that we're leading, we're also very much as an industry empowering consumers with new call labeling tools and call blocking tools that say, look, if you don't want to restrict, receive certain calls, you are empowered to do that. Or if at a minimum, let's label that the calls and more effectively so that consumers have more information about is the call likely scam or not? So they can make a decision. So is it an illegal call? No. But there's a consumer. Want to receive it or answer it? No. And in that case, we should empower them to either have more information about who's calling them so they can decide for themselves or block certain calls that we know that they don't want to receive because they've told us.

Laura Knoy:
I'd like to get your thoughts, too, on that question. Brandon, what is the focus of your effort? Is it the scams? Is it the illegal calls, even though they're from legit companies? Is it the annoying telemarketers who are legal? But gosh, you don't want to get 16 offers for credit cards in one day?

Brandon Garod:
Well, I think that's a good question. The efforts of the attorney general, his office as a law enforcement entity are focused primarily on the illegal calls, the scam calls, because like we just talked about, know there is a method in this country. It's called the do not call list. If you don't want to receive the calls from Capital One, you can register your name. It's a crime if Capital One, then continues to call customers if they're on the do not call us. And usually the legitimate businesses do abide by that.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And let me just jump in. Sorry to interrupt, but my dad, who's 88, is inundated by robo calls all day long. And he is on that do not call list. So it doesn't seem to be doing him any good. Go ahead. Just got to put that in there.

Brandon Garod:
But so first and foremost, you know, the problem is the ones that just completely ignore the do not call list. And, you know, if they're there, they're committing a crime by perpetrating these scams. So if they're willing to commit a crime by defrauding people, they're certainly willing to commit a crime by ignoring the do not call list. So the number of calls that come in that are illegitimate. We've got to get that number down. We have to first reduce that number, ultimately eliminate that number. And then what we'd like to be able to do is identify where these calls are coming from so that we can actually start holding some of these perpetrators accountable, because there are billions of dollars that are leaving this country as a result of these scams. And they're almost all perpetrated by robocalls.

Laura Knoy:
So one thing at a time, you're saying, sure, the do not call list isn't working as intended. Sure. Some of these legit companies are a nuisance for people when their phone is ringing off the hook all the time. But let's start with the really bad actors. Is that what you're saying? Brandon?

Brandon Garod:
Absolutely. And a nuisance. It's not to minimize the nuisance at all because it is a true nuisance for almost every single American who owns a cell phone or a landline phone. But, you know, those are not illegal calls. Those are not people that are lying to people defrauding people, trying to scam people out of, you know, millions and millions of dollars. We need to target the bad actors first, the ones that are using people's phones against them in order to obtain their personal information, steal their identity and steal their money. So that's where I think the priority is, is identifying and reducing the number of calls. And hopefully, you know, holding some people accountable because it is a crime. You know, every time one of these happens, whether it's the IRS scam or the grandparents scammer, you know, one of the other thousands and thousands. Phone scams that are out there. It is pure and simple theft that these people are committing and these people have been getting away with it for far too long. And the attorney general's office community throughout this country and fifty one attorney general's offices are committed to implementing this technology, identifying these perpetrators and holding them accountable for their actions.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and we did a whole program on the grandparents scam. About six months ago, the IRS scam, a lot of people I heard about that. We're gonna talk a little bit later with someone from the Public Utilities Commission about the we're gonna shut your electricity off scam. A new one that came on our phone just recently is the college loan scam. I want to play just a little bit of it for folks. Just so happened, we got this call a few weeks after our son had filed for a student loan, so it seemed legit. But a quick Google search revealed that many, many others had received this exact same call. Let's hear.

Caller:
Yes, this is Kathleen Newman. I'm calling in reference to your federal student loan. I need to discuss your repayment options with some new changes that have taken effect recently. So if you could please be sure to give me a call back. My number is 8 6 6 5 1 9 2 6 6 2.

Laura Knoy:
And she goes on to give you a code and says, here's your personal code and please come with the code. It'll make it easier. Wow. Patrick, she sounds so lovely. And trust me. Hey, how are you in the telecom industry going to go after Kathleen Newman and her ilk?

Patrick Halley:
So what's interesting about that is I can't tell if that's a human or not, because some of the technology has gotten and it sounded like one. It may have been. It may not have been.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. It sounds like someone who bakes pies for the PTA.

Patrick Halley:
Yeah, right. Exactly. So again, and that just goes to show you there. There are so many different types of scam. That's a very personal one. There are certain scams that target people who will come to this country from other countries, specifically going after Chinese Americans or Indian Americans with a very specific targeted message like that. Those are the ones that are really sophisticated.

Patrick Halley:
And you know what we what we can do the best we can do at this point is to if we know who is called with the phone number, with what carrier and what time of day, we can then initiate what we do through our trace back process to say, OK, well, where did that call come from? And let's figure out who the perpetrator is, because I think, you know, one of the problems is there's no single solution to all of this. Illegal callers are smart. They figure out how to, you know, work around technological solutions. No single state A.G., no federal agency, no company can solve this completely. So there's really a three pronged attack here. One is, you know, provide consumers with call blocking technology, but that doesn't stop the calls from happening. Right. That just hopefully prevents the bad ones from getting through. Two is, you know, better authenticating calls so that we know that a call that's made is made from a legitimate phone number, not a spoofed number. That's something that's being rolled out by the industry as we speak. And then third is the trace back thing that I've been describing when we try to find the source of the calls. I think what's what's key here is they're gonna keep coming.

Patrick Halley:
It's very cheap to make these calls with modern voiceover IP technology. So we are very much focused. And I think the attorney general's are as well appropriately on identifying who's making the vast majority of these calls and putting them out of business because we've put them out of business and we don't need to block costs. Right. And it doesn't matter if we're authenticating because these are legal calls are coming through. And that's a little bit of a pie in the sky view. And it's pretty hard to just get all of them stopped. But that's that is certainly our focus. Whether it's that call, there's other scams where it's not so much a personal scam like that, but they call them and then they purposely try to get you to call back because there's money to be made there. You know, there's a fraction of a cent every time somebody makes a phone call. You know, it just has to do with the economics of how phone call delivery works. But all of the different companies involved, some of them, you know, make a little bit of money off of the calls. And that's why they're doing it. It's not about a personal scam. It's just about trying to get a volume of calls made over a network so that they can get paid.

Laura Knoy:
Patrick, to ask questions for you and then we'll let you go. Please, first of all, you said we, meaning the telecom companies, are going to provide consumers with better call blocking technology. Is that going to be free or do consumers have to pay for that?

Patrick Halley:
Sure. So right now there's and there's different types of blocking, right? So there's what we call a network level blocking. This is calls that are on a do not originate list, meaning like a government agency may have certain numbers that they only receive phone calls from constituents. Nobody should ever be making a phone call with that number. Right. So those are something that we maintain called a do not originate list. Those calls are always blocked, if if you're on the list. Calls that are not numbers that have never actually been allocated or that no carriers actually authorized to use, these types of things, which the carriers have these lists of numbers. Those are automatically blocked in the network. They'll never get through. And then there are new solutions that the carriers are rolling out themselves. There are other third party companies we call them, you know, analytics companies that have really robust data analytics capabilities to identify what they believe to be a call that is either illegal or unwanted. And carriers are slowly sort of rolling out more sophisticated versions of that. Many of those solutions are free. Certainly the largest carriers have committed to providing free solutions. Some of them are over the top. Companies like Nomo Robo, where you mentioned you mail at the top of the program, provide over the top sort of applications that consumers can use that are free. So there's many free solutions. And I think increasingly you're seeing the solutions be free for consumers.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and you mentioned this just a moment ago, Patrick. You know how it is kind of like an arms race. You know, your industry comes up with better blocking software, better analytics. But the robo callers who can make a lot of money, as Brandon said, robo calling, they come up with their sort of alternative, their work around. So how difficult is it for you guys to stay one step ahead?

Patrick Halley:
Definitely difficult, but the carriers are committed to staying ahead through offering the solutions to block and label calls and to ensure that the traffic that is on their networks is authenticated as being a legitimate call with a legitimate number that hasn't been spoofed, tracing back these things. As I said earlier, there's there isn't a single thing we can do and there will be calls that are going to be made that are that are illegal. We're never going to stop that completely. Our quest is to significantly reduce them, particularly the really illegal calls, and then just continue to advance the solutions every day. You know, the carriers working with their with their analytics companies are learning more about the behaviors that happen and what robo calls are doing so that their algorithms can be updated to prevent calls based on patterns that they've seen. And that's just something that we're we're all very much committed to doing.

Laura Knoy:
All right, Patrick, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it. That's Patrick Halley, senior vice president of advocacy and regulatory affairs at U.S. Telecom. Coming up, how a major consumer group views federal and state and corporate efforts against robo calls. This is the exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
This is the exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, Robo calls. The explosion in these automated calls has become not just an annoyance, but also a source of identity theft, fraud and even a threat to critical communications system. So this summer, state and federal officials, as well as telecommunications companies, as we heard, unveiled their plans to combat this. We're finding out more this hour and we'd love to hear from you. . We heard earlier from someone from the telecommunications industry. With us in studio for the hour is Brandon Garod, senior assistant attorney general and chief of the AG's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau. And in just a few minutes, we'll be bringing in a major U.S. consumer advocacy group. But back to you for a moment. Brandon, if I could just first of all, on a personal level. How often do you get robo calls?

Brandon Garod:
I get at least five of these calls every single day, and that's on. I have two cell phones now. I have a personal cell phone. And I was given a work cell phone when I started the attorney general's office. Ironically, I get more robo calls on my work phone than my personal phone. But I just don't answer them at this point. And unfortunately, you know, it's to the point where I couldn't tell you what the robo calls I'm getting are because I've just trained myself to never answer my phone if I don't recognize the number. And, you know, this has become really disrupted for a lot of people who want to answer their phone and want to be able to, you know, trust that if somebody is trying to get a hold of them, if there's something important that needs to be conveyed to them in a quick fashion, that, you know, they can answer their phone. But at this point, you know, I get probably, you know, I don't know, 30 of these a week at least. And it's we think there's a correlation between the amount of times you're willing to answer your phone and the number of calls you get.

Laura Knoy:
I wonder about that. Yeah. Give us a little more there. So don't pick up at all.

Brandon Garod:
That's the advice that we give to people, mostly because, A, these scam artists are really, really good. And, you know, we've seen really smart, educated, intelligent people that fall victim to these scams because these scam artists are professionals. They have it down to a science. And, you know, they're very, very good at what they do. The other side of the coin, like we just talked about, is the more you answer your phone, your phone gets labeled as a live line, a line that somebody is willing to answer. And we don't know exactly how this system works in terms of how you get calls and how many calls you get. But we have noticed both me personally and with other people that we've interacted with consumers across the state that the more you answer your phone, the more you pick up robo calls, the more robo calls you get.

Laura Knoy:
Interesting. So even if you're picking up the robo call and saying, don't call me again, I'll report you to the A.G. or whatever. Don't even do that.

Brandon Garod:
Absolutely not. Scammers are not intimidated by law enforcement. Most of them are not in this country. They know that you can hang up the phone and they can call you back and that more likely than not, nothing's going to happen because no one can find them. And even if we can't find them, it's very difficult. You know, jurisdiction wise to go and arrest somebody who's in India or in Africa or, you know, another part of the world. But they're not going to be intimidated by you. They're not going to, you know, stop calling because you tell them to stop calling. The best thing you can do is just hit, ignore if the call is legitimate. If if it is a good robo call like we talked about, say it's your pharmacy or your doctor or, you know, a school closure or alert, they will leave a voicemail and you can check your voicemail. You can listen to it and you can trust that that is a legitimate call. However, you know, if you pick up the phone, you have no idea who is on the other line.

Laura Knoy:
Is this more of a problem with landlines or cell phones?

Brandon Garod:
It's an enormous problem on both. This really knows no boundary. And I think the reason is that somewhere in this world there is a large bank of phone numbers that are put into these machines that distribute these robo calls. And a number is a number. It doesn't matter if it's a cell phone number or a landline number once that number is in their system and on their rotation. You know, these machines can spit out millions of robo calls at once. It doesn't matter if it's a cell phone or if it's a landline. You're going to keep getting those calls as long as you're in their system and you're marked as a lifeline that somebody is willing to answer.

Laura Knoy:
Ok. And let's reiterate that a number is a number, but a number that someone picks up, even if they yell into the phone, don't ever call me again. That's a more valuable number because there is an actual live person attached to that number. I wanna bring another voice into our conversation. Joining us now on the phone is Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst with Consumer Reports. She has been looking a lot at this issue of robo calls. Maureen, welcome.

Maureen Mahoney:
Thanks for having me.

Laura Knoy:
How do you define a robo call from your perspective as a consumer advocate?

Maureen Mahoney:
Well, from our perspective, a robo call is any unwanted auto-dialled call, whether it's coming from a scammer or from a legitimate company. Many robo calls are from legitimate companies but consumers don't want them. For example, from debt collectors. So what's important is defining robo calls in such a way that consumers have effective control over them.

Laura Knoy:
So it isn't just, you know, the college loan scam that I played a little bit of before or the IRS scam. You're seeing a robo call is any call that is auto generated and that consumers don't want. Can we add that into the definition? Maureen, what do you think?

Maureen Mahoney:
Exactly. Yeah. Any unwanted out auto-dialled call is what we consider a robo call.

Laura Knoy:
Back in January, you said, quote, Phone companies drag their feet and failed to truly solve the problem of robo calls. Now, there's been a summer of effort really aimed at this issue. We've been talking about it. The attorneys general and the companies and the FCC. How do you feel now about that foot dragging?

Maureen Mahoney:
Well, we've been pushing the phone companies for years to do more to provide effective solutions from robo calls. We are pleased that there are steps that are appearing to be made. For example, there's bipartisan legislation in Congress that we're supporting that would require phone companies to implement a robo call technology. And as you noted, the major phone companies main agreement with the state attorneys general to provide these services for free as well. So we think these steps are promising, but the devil's in the details. And we'll also need the FCC to oversee compliance to make sure that phone companies actually comply, that it's effective for consumers.

Laura Knoy:
So how confident are you feeling about the FCC commitment to sort out these details, to make sure that these reforms are meaningful?

Maureen Mahoney:
Well, the FCC has said that addressing unwanted robo calls is its top priority. And likewise, there have been some helpful stuff in recent months. For example, back in June, the FCC clarified that phone companies can offer call blocking tools on an opt out basis, meaning that the phone companies have more leeway to identify and stop robo calls without asking the consumer's explicit permission first, which should be helpful in getting more of these technologies operating on that level. However, they have so far failed to require the phone companies to implement these technologies. And it's really important for all the phone companies to be participating so consumers have the protections they need. So having mandatory protections in place is something that's important to us.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and speaking of the FCC, here's a little bit from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. He said addressing robo calls is his agency's top consumer protection priority. He said they drive Americans crazy. Here he is earlier this summer, announcing some of these steps that you mentioned. Maureen, let's hear.

The FCC just voted to take another step to combat these unwanted robo calls. We adopted new rules to ban malicious caller I.D. spoofing of text messages and international phone calls. This will help the FCC go after bad actors who spoof text messages and those who are calling from overseas. Using new authority given to us by Congress. We're making it harder for international scam artists to deceive U.S. consumers and evade law enforcement.

Laura Knoy:
Again, we're talking about robo calls today in the exchange. With me in studio for the hour, Brandon Garod, senior assistant attorney general and chief of The AG's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau here in New Hampshire. And with us now on the phone, Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst with Consumer Reports, and both of you. Let's bring our listeners into this conversation. Jerry is calling in from Dover. Hi, Jerry. You're on the year. Welcome.

Caller:
Hi. Good morning. Good morning. I have an interesting thing happen about a month ago. I heard that there was an app that was available that you could get some of the various phone providers to screen robo calls. So I called Verizon and they gave me this app called called Filter. I used it for a couple of weeks. This seemed to work pretty well. But then about two weeks ago where I was getting notices saying potential scam, but nothing was appearing, then I started getting scam calls again. So I called Verizon and I said, you know, it doesn't seem to be working. They said, well, we'll just reset it for you. So they reset it and while I was talking to them. I was online and Call Filter Plus that they had on their website.

Laura Knoy:
Call Filter Plus. Is that what you said, Jerry? Call Filter Plus?

Caller:
Yeah. So I asked them about called filter plus. And they said, well, that's a more effective one. And you can you can have that one for two ninety nine a month. And my question is, if they have a more effective way of screening calls, why do they charge you for it?

Laura Knoy:
Jerry, this is a great question. And both of you. Brandon, you first. We talked about this a little bit earlier with Patrick. Should consumers have to pay for these call blocking services?

Brandon Garod:
I don't believe they should. You know, this is a problem that affects every single American, Democrat, Republican, Red Sox fan, Yankees fan. It doesn't matter. Everybody in America is affected by this. It has become an enormous nuisance. It's interrupting everybody's everyday life. It's changed the way that people interact with their phones. People are missing legitimate phone calls because they can't trust the caller I.D. that's on their phone. People, consumers pay a lot of money for their cell phone service, for their landline service. And, you know, to be, you know, paying money to then become targets and scams is really not acceptable. So, you know, I think the phone companies really have stepped up and have worked with 51 different Attorneys General office in this country and are committed to implementing technology ultimately for free that will address this problem. It's not implemented yet. It's going to take some time to roll out over time. I can't speak to the specific application that the caller is speaking about, but ultimately, I think everybody, including the phone companies, agrees that something needs to be done. The technology has been developed. It's going to be implemented, implemented, and it's going to be ultimately free to consumers.

Laura Knoy:
So, OK. So obviously, what happened to Jerry was before this agreement was signed, cause this agreement was signed between the telecom companies and the attorneys general was just a couple of weeks ago. So it sounds like you're agreeing with him that, you know, call blocking software or an app should be effective and free and you shouldn't say it's okay. But, Jerry, if you want a really good one, that's another three bucks a month. You're saying that under this agreement, no?

Brandon Garod:
That's correct. And, you know, I think that where the language is drawn is, you know, when it was just a nuisance, when it was, you know, being inundated with legitimate robo calls that were legitimate businesses trying to sell you something, but nobody was breaking the law. You know, if a consumer wanted to eliminate those, perhaps the phone companies could justify charging a little extra in order to eliminate nuisance calls. But I think that the game is completely changed once you're talking about criminals, people that are using the telephone networks to perpetrate crime and scams. And at that point, people should not have to pay money to avoid being victims of crime.

Laura Knoy:
Maureen, I'm guessing you're keeping an eye on this as well. How much, if any, will consumers be charged to get more control back over their phones?

Maureen Mahoney:
Well, unfortunately, sometimes consumers are charged for these services, but it's really important for us to ensure that some companies are required to provide effective call blocking technologies and other anti-robo technologies at no charge. That's a key tenet of our End Robocalls campaign, which we started in 2015. For all the reasons that your other guest has said,consumers pay so much for phone service already, it's not fair to ask them to pay more just to protect themselves from scam and other unwanted calls. And the robo call problem gets to the quality of the phone service. We hear from consumers all the time that important incoming and outgoing calls are interrupted by spam and other unwanted robo calls. So it should really be up to the phone companies to ensure the quality of the phone service. Which means no unwanted and scam robo calls at no charge.

Laura Knoy:
So one last question for Maureen. I'd love your take on this. So as we've been discussing, all these entities are now involved in this promising action. The FCC, the companies, the attorneys general. This fall, Congress is expected to take action. Who should take the lead here? Maureen, are there too many entities and actors involved in this or should this be an all hands on deck effort? What do you think?

Maureen Mahoney:
I think is an all hands on deck effort. We think the FCC should be taking steps to ensure that phone companies implement this technology. If the FCC fails to act, which it has done so far in terms of requiring it, then it's up to Congress to step in. It doesn't matter, you know, which brands or agency is taking action. We just want to make sure that these tools are in place and ideally, we get to the point where some companies are implementing these technologies on the back end. So it's seamless for consumers that that's scam robo calls are just stopped before they reach the consumer so that they don't even have to think about it or take additional action. So we really want to get to the point where the consumer doesn't have to do anything and they're just protected from robo calls.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, well, it's good to talk to Maureen. Thank you very much. That's Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst with Consumer Reports. And coming up, more of your questions and comments. Also, how New Hampshire's Public Utilities Commission is addressing robo calls.

Laura Knoy:
This is the exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. Tomorrow New Hampshire First District Congressman Chris Pappas is here. So send us your questions before the show to exchange and join us Thursday morning live at 9. Today, we're hearing about new efforts to combat the robo call epidemic. With me in studio, Brandon Garod, senior assistant attorney general, chief of The AG's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau. And Brandon, right back to our callers. Bruce is joining us from Londonderry. Hi, Bruce. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hi. Thanks for taking my phone call. I have an interesting situation. We have three phones in our house, two smartphones and a landline. And I've gotten robo calls from my own landline.

Laura Knoy:
Wait, can you explain that again. Can you explain that again Bruce?

Caller:
Well, we don't even use that phone. In fact, that phone is not even plugged in. But every so often we get a phone call from our landline.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's the spoofing where the the robo caller. Yeah, go ahead.

Caller:
Yeah, well, what I usually do when I get a call, I look at I look at where it's from if its a place I don't recognize. The first thing I do is push the volume button to keep it from ringing. And when they're done, I just go, if they don't leave a message, I automatically block because I figure if they don't want to leave a message, it's nobody I care about. So I'd like the phone call in. But right now we have hundreds of block phone calls.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Well, Bruce, thank you very much for calling in. And it takes a little while to wrap your head around that this spoofing that's been going on. So go ahead. I'd love your thoughts there, Brandon.

Brandon Garod:
So this is probably the most frustrating part of this spoofing is, you know, when this first started, it was very simple solution. If you don't recognize the number right, don't answer the phone. But as Bruce just said, these spoofing technologies have gotten so sophisticated that we've actually heard from consumers in the state where contacts in their phone are showing up. So they're answering it, thinking it's their mother, thinking it's their spouse, thinking it's their friend. And it's a scammer who's managed to somehow identify a number in this person's contacts and spoof it. It's terrifying. I mean, completely terrifying, because we don't we can't tell people not to answer calls from people that are in their contacts. I mean, we have the right to we pay for these phones. We need these phones. We need to be able to receive important information quickly sometimes. And people are essentially left, you know, without recourse at that point. Luckily, it's the minority of spoofing cases usually right now.

Laura Knoy:
We'll see what happens next week? How hard is it, Brandon, to bring perpetrators to justice? This is the focus of a lot of these efforts, not just helping people block these calls, but also going after people who continue to do this, especially those who are, you know, making money off of vulnerable populations. How difficult is it to find these folks? And I don't know. Throw them in jail. I mean, some of these people are overseas. They're pretty technically savvy. It's really easy to switch out or make technical changes, cover your footsteps. So is that really realistic to say? Yeah. We're gonna clap these people in handcuffs and bring them in.

Brandon Garod:
So to answer your first question, which is how difficult is it? I've been a prosecutor for almost seven years. I've prosecuted all different types of crime in the state. These are the most difficult perpetrators to identify. And without question, they are the most difficult perpetrators to actually arrest and, you know, bring criminal actions against. It's almost impossible in most cases because like you said, they are for the most part overseas. They spoof their phone numbers. They spoof their email addresses. They spoof their IP addresses. And usually, you know, law enforcement can only go so far and we can usually identify the country that the calls are originating from. But that's about as far as we can take it. So we are left essentially at this point powerless to actually arrest and, you know, prosecute these perpetrators. The hope is that with the new technology that is going to be implemented, hopefully within the next year, that the FCC will be able to trace back some of these calls to actually identify, you know, not the spoof number, but the real number where these calls coming from and that we can actually allocate, as you Chairman Pai spoke about in the recording that you played, you know, identify them and hold them accountable, take them off the streets, you know, shut them down and stop these calls from coming at this point. You know, as a state law enforcement agency, we have been essentially powerless to do it. If the calls originated from within the United States, we would be a we'd have more resources that we could use to do it. And there are some calls that originate in the United States, but they're few and far between. I'm guessing a lot of this is from overseas. I would say 95 percent of it comes from overseas.

Laura Knoy:
I want to bring another voice into our conversation, Brandon. This is Amanda Noonan. She's director of consumer services and external affairs for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. And Amanda, welcome. Thank you for being with us. Thank you. What are you hearing from people in terms of robo calls?

Amanda Noonan:
I think we're hearing a lot of what you've already heard this morning. We hear frustration from customers about receiving multiple calls every day, about having their phone number on the do not call list, but still receiving these calls. We hear from customers who are receiving calls identified as being from friends and family, and they're answering these calls only to find out it's not their mom and it's not their best friends. We hear from customers. We recently heard from an elderly woman whose own name and telephone number appeared on her caller I.D. and she was extremely concerned that she was a victim of identity theft. Sure. And so it's a process of education as to how this might happen. Last week, I received two calls on my cell phone from my own cell phone number, which was a little amusing to me. Yes, very you know, it's very concerning to people that don't understand how this happened or what it's all about. But what's most concerning to the commission are the calls we receive that are falsely identified on a customer's caller I.D. as being from their electric or gas utility.

Amanda Noonan:
They're scam calls, they're often threatening disconnection of utilities service if payment isn't received immediately. And that's of grave concern to us. It affects more vulnerable customers, elderly and those who for whom English isn't their first language. And it also affects small businesses because they're targeted as the loss of electricity means lost sales and lost revenue.

Laura Knoy:
So what's your role, Amanda, at the Public Utilities Commission in helping Granite Staters with us?

Amanda Noonan:
So our primary focus really is on educating consumers about what to be aware of and how to protect themselves from these scams. I think you've heard the difficulties in tracking these folks down and taking any action, and that's all on on the law enforcement side. So we educate one on one. We provide information on our Web site about how to spot and avoid scams, what to do if you receive a call like this. We advise customers to report them to the FCC, to report them to their telephone company to help in the efforts you had talked about earlier in the trace back effort through U.S. Telecom and their association.

Laura Knoy:
So report them to the FCC, report them to the phone company, maybe report them to the attorney general's office. I've heard that advice before. I got to say, Amanda, given the volume of calls that a lot of people get. That's a lot of time. I don't have time to do that.

Amanda Noonan:
Well, yeah, it is absolutely a lot of time. And I'll be the first to admit I have not done that with the calls that come to my own phone have until just recently when I thought, OK, if we really want to assist all these agencies and tracking these folks down, the more voices, the better. And I was pleasantly surprised to find out. It took me 30 seconds to report an illegal robo call on the FCC Web site. So I think people have to make that determination about what to do.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Amanda, thank you very much for being with us. I really appreciate it. That's Amanda Noonan, director of Consumer Services and external affairs for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. I'd love your thoughts, too, on that last question I asked Amanda Brandon. You know, people say all reports, the FCC report of the phone company, maybe they say reported to your office, the AG's office. But I just really am not going to take the time out to do that. I just go, oh, it's annoying. I hang up or I don't answer it. What are your thoughts on what consumers can do? Should they report?

Brandon Garod:
I think consumers have to make that choice for themselves. You know, like we talked about earlier, sometimes people are getting 5, 6, 10 calls a day. I don't think it's realistic to think that somebody is going to be able to find the time to report 10 calls a day every day in perpetuity until this problem is solved. That being said, the more people talk about this, the more people are educated about this, the better. So, you know, while reporting to the FCC is certainly probably worth the 30 seconds it takes, if you have somebody that you know is getting these calls and is engaging with any of these scammers, it has potentially become victimized by any of these scammers. We strongly, strongly encourage people to report that to local law enforcement and to the attorney general's office, because while we may not be able to help hold somebody accountable, what we can do is educate consumers and we can educate victims and hopefully make them understand that they are victims and these callers are not illegitimate and teach, you know, better practices to try to avoid becoming a victim of these calls. So for just the the five calls a day where you just push, ignore, it doesn't do a ton of good to report every single one of them because like we talked about the number is spoofed. So you can report the number could change in five seconds. Like Amanda said, she got calls from herself. So to report it, you know, I got a call from this number. It's her number. It is very little that anybody can do with that information. But if you have a call, you've engaged with somebody, a loved one, especially, you know, elderly relatives who tend to be more susceptible to these scams than others. To the extent they're getting these calls, they're answering these calls, engaging with these scammers. Education is key. So in those instances, I think reporting those types of calls are critical because it gives law enforcement the ability to identify potential victims, educate them and hopefully prevent them from becoming further victimized in the future.

Laura Knoy:
Well, speaking of education information, we have all sorts of resources on our Web site for today's show nhpr.org slash exchange. Check out the Web post for today's show for more information, resources and so forth. And Brandon, just a couple minutes left. Let's go back to our listeners. And Ben is joining us from Londonderry. Hi, Ben. You're on the air. Thank you for being with us.

Caller:
Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Sure. So I had an interesting kind of encounter recently where I got a text message solicitation, and rather than it being just a text to me, it was a group text to me and about nine other people. And so not only was I getting the solicitation, but then I was getting angry responses of everyone responding back to the text even after I deleted the conversation. I was wondering if that was something that you encounter encountered before and what recourse you might have to get that kind of thing.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Ben, that's really irritating. Thank you for calling. Go ahead. Brandon, text.

Brandon Garod:
I mean, you know, that's a new one for me. I have not heard of a lot of text solicitation. And, you know, one frustration is your group texts are often very difficult to opt out of. So, you know, depending on what your type of phone you have and what type of your carrier you have, you may or may not be able to opt out of those. I think this goes to, you know, what we've said all along, which is while this may be annoying, just don't engage with it. You do your best to block it. If you have the ability to opt out of a group text on a Phone, certainly opt out of it. Don't engage with them because you don't know who's on the other side. You don't know, you know, even though it appears that it's a group text and you have all these responses from other potential, you know, victims, you never know. This might be the newest scam where it's a group of scammers that are all texting.

Laura Knoy:
I see, pretending to be your friend's from your contacts. Yeah, but even if you don't engage. It's irritating. It's and it's disruptive. And when my text goes off, I assume it's one of my sisters or one of my kids or, you know, somebody who needs me. So I am going to pay attention to that text when it comes through.

Brandon Garod:
I would say the advice for consumers, if they find themselves in the situation that the caller just described is while you may not be able to just automatically opt out of a group text. If you look at the numbers and you don't recognize any of them, you could just block all of those numbers. If you, most cell phones these days have the ability to block specific numbers. If you end up in this group text where you don't recognize any of the numbers and it appears like a solicitation, just block all you know, he I think he said nine different numbers, just like all nine numbers. And hopefully that should be the end of it. But if you continue to experience the problem, I would reach out to your telephone provider and express frustration that, you know, this is happening. And, you know, based on the service you're receiving, there's no way to seemingly opt out of this. And, you know, telephone companies want to address this. They want to remedy this. They want to improve their service. So the more they hear from consumers, the more they'll be able to do so.

Laura Knoy:
Well, thank you very much for the call, Ben. And Bea is calling from Portsmouth. Hi. Bea you're on the exchange. Thanks for being with us.

Caller:
Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So my question for everyone is what are people doing with their contacts? I rarely get robocalls. Rarely. And I work out of the house the numbers been a work number for 20 years. I have a cell phone and I have rented cars where I've seen people's contacts still in the rental car. They haven't done anything with them. Are people sharing their contacts on LinkedIn or on Facebook? And so I think that instead of expecting everyone else to secure our privacy, we're really doing for ourselves. This is your privacy and keep our contacts and phone numbers from being out in the general public.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you so much for the call. Good point. And you know, sometimes you do have to give your phone number, but sometimes you don't. She's right. So go ahead, Brandon.

Brandon Garod:
I think that's a really, really great point, which is that while we do turn to the telecommunication companies, we turn to the attorney general's offices in the country to help eliminate these types of calls. There are steps that consumers can take in order to reduce their exposure to identity theft, reduce their exposure to ending up on some of these call lists. And it just involves really being smarter about safeguarding your information. Like the caller just said, you had your phone number is your private number. It should only be given to those people who you want to have it or in those situations where you absolutely have to provide it. So to be safe, she mentioned leaving contact you on LinkedIn, make that decision for yourself. Decide whether that's really worth it. Because, you know, we hear about security breaches regularly. If you put your phone number on a website. That websites has a security breach. Your phone number is then sold everywhere across the world to the highest bidder. So minimize the number of places where your phone number is, your addresses, your name is, your Social Security number is, your date of birth is, all of these things, safeguard them to the fullest extent possible. And you take the steps that you can that are within your control as a consumer to reduce the chances that you'll become a victim of either identity theft or become, you know, added to this list of, you know, susceptible people for robo calls.

Laura Knoy:
So last question for you, Brendan. What's next for you? Now that The Age's office has signed on to this major national effort to block robo calls, what's the next step for you in this role?

Brandon Garod:
So over the next about, we we expect it will take you know, it's hopefully within the next year communication companies are going to start implementing this. We hope that consumers are going to see a big change, the number of calls they get. But we as the attorney general's office, our resource for consumers, we're here. If you have questions about the rollout, about best practices, please feel free to give us a call. And we're more than happy to educate you and provide any assistance.

Laura Knoy:
And when you say this rollout, you mean, again, this enhanced, improved robo call blocking mechanism that the companies say they're going to put in place. You guys are keeping an eye on that basic. Absolutely. That's Brandon Garod. He's senior assistant attorney general and chief of The Age's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau. The exchange is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

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