Our Opinion: No fake numbers for robocallers

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If you feel you're inundated with more robocalls than ever before, you're not imagining it. It's fact.

To make matters worse, robocall companies make their calls appear to be coming from familiar numbers such as within a Massachusetts area code or even from a friend or family member's phone. It's a diabolical escalation in the invasion of our right to privacy.

Monday on Beacon Hill, the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure heard testimony on several bills related to consumer solicitations, including one filed by Rep. John Barrett III, a North Adams Democrat. His bill (H.3753) requires that the phone number that appears on a recipient's caller ID be a real phone number that can be tracked back to the calling party. It also prohibits anyone from placing a call or text, "which results in the display of misleading, false or inaccurate identification," or making a Massachusetts area code appear on the caller ID if the caller does not have a physical presence within the state.

In 2017, the first full year that YouMail tracked the number of robocalls placed in each state, the service reported that 290 million were made within Massachusetts. With about 2 1/2 months remaining in 2019, the service says that 462 million robocalls have been placed in the state. The problem confronting firms that employ robocalls is that thanks to caller ID recipients may decline to answer any call coming from a strange area code.

This led to the creation of a technique called "spoofing," in which a robocaller can employ a voice-over IP service such as Skype and enter a manufactured phone number that comes up on the recipient's caller ID. According to a report in CNN Business, the huge number of online data breaches in recent years that have exposed phone numbers to scammers can enable an enterprising robocaller to make the phone number of a friend or family member come up on a victim's caller ID.

Even a company that insists it must make robocalls to find customers can't justify misleading those potential customers just to get them to pick up their phone. Rep. Barrett's bill, which has 53 co-sponsors, addresses this problem through the prohibitions noted above and by requiring that telephone service providers doing business in the state "implement effective caller authentication technology" to foil the scammers. Several major firms, among them Verizon, Charter and Comcast, are working on such technology, according to the State House News Service, and on Monday, Gerry Keegan of CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless communications industry, urged legislators to send Rep. Barrett's bill to committee while this process goes forward. Committee is too often where good bills go to die, while passage of H.3753 would provide a powerful incentive to the communications industry to build and implement this technology — especially if the 49 other states whose consumers are plagued by robocalls follow suit. Attorneys general from all 50 states are on record demanding that this be done.

Robocallers tend to find ways around efforts to stymie them — remember the failed "no-call lists"? They are a moving target, but as of now, the robocalls from fake numbers are a major target that Rep. Barrett's bill homes in on. It should be passed by the Legislature and go to the governor's desk for his signature.



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