Suffolk Closeup: Roadblocks to robocalls

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION

People in Suffolk County, indeed folks all over New York State and the United States, are besieged by robocalls.

According to the online Robocall Index, there have been 141,184,300 robocalls made to Suffolk’s 631 area code so far in 2018. Last year, there were 108,161,200. And in 2016, there were 79,705,500 robocalls.

Nationally, the number has risen to more than 4 billion robocalls a month.

But a rescue from these annoying, obnoxious, time-consuming calls could soon be on its way in New York State.

As the federal government mulls over bills and new regulations — and the touted federal “Do Not Call Registry” does not cover the situation — a bill has just been introduced in the New York State Legislature, the “Telephone Consumer Privacy Protection Act.”

It is sponsored by Yuh-Line Niou in the Assembly and Brad Hoylman in the Senate. Both represent Manhattan districts.

We called State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. whose district includes Shelter Island, about the new bill, and after he researched it, he promptly called back to say he’s signed on to co-sponsor the legislation.

“It’s a great bill,” Mr. Thiele said. “These calls are insidious. Many seem to be local on the caller ID and then you pick up the phone and it’s a robocall. There was a time when the ‘Do Not Call Registry’ was effective, but those behind robocalls have gotten way ahead of laws and regulations.”

The proposed state law requires telephone service providers to offer free robocall-blocking equipment to their customers. This would not seem to be difficult.

With our Verizon phone service, some —not all — of the robocalls are flagged on my caller ID as “spam.” Well, if phone companies can identify robocalls, they sure can block them.

“These technologies exist,” Mr. Thiele noted.

Further, the proposed law mandates that there must be “consent” from the consumer to receive non-emergency autodialed calls.

“Like so many New Yorkers, everyone in my family has been annoyed by robocalls on a near daily basis,” Senator Hoylman states. “These robocalls are a scourge on the public, and my constituents have been vocal about the extent to which these calls infringe on their privacy and interrupt their daily lives.”

Mr. Thiele said complaints he’s been receiving from constituents about robocalls “are way up.”

People in the Greater New York Area have been “disproportionately affected” by robocalls, Senator Hoylman said.

Along with the federal “Do Not Call Registry” there’s a New York State “Do Not Call Law,” adopted in 2001. But, says State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Long Islander, the state’s Division of Consumer Protection has not been adequately enforcing it.

“Without enforcement of the law, telemarketers will continue to bother people,” Mr. DiNapoli said. “There are only five positions behind New York’s ‘Do Not Call’ program.” And the position of its director “had been vacant for 18 months until recently,” he said in September.

The publication Bottom Line Personal, in a November article, “How to Outwit Robocallers,” told of how many robocalls “are scams meant to draw you in so that a live operator can get on the line and convince you to hand over money or personal financial data.” It suggested ways “to fight back” that stressed people getting call-blocking devices.

My wife’s new answering machine, made by Panasonic, offers a blocking feature. When a robocall is made to her line, she can press a button and block future calls from that number.

However, the total amount of blocked numbers is 250, which I fear is not enough.

The venerable Consumer Reports of Consumers Union in November ran a story headed, “Robocalls and Scams Are Now One-Third of All Calls.” It quoted Paul Florack, vice president of Transaction Network Services, as saying “we’re being trained not to answer our phones.”

Unwanted calls are now the subject of the most complaints to both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Consumers Union is pushing for strong and needed federal action.

Indeed, there ought to be a law — laws on the state and federal levels — to end the scourge of robocalls.

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