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Robocall scams (copy)

Technology has made it easy for crooks to fool consumers into thinking they are receiving a phone call from a legitimate company.

People don’t answer the phone like they used to. The police could be calling to tell you that a loved one has been in a terrible accident, but you might not pick up because you don’t recognize the number.

Robocallers are ruining phone calls for everyone.

The scourge of unwanted calls that seek to scam people has gotten so bad that it’s accomplished something seemingly impossible these days: It got congressional Democrats and Republicans to agree on something. Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly have passed bipartisan legislation to help consumers and the telecommunications industry.

But they aren’t the same bill, and the tougher House bill should prevail.

Most people are familiar with the pitches for credit monitoring and dire warnings that a Social Security number has been compromised: Just press “1” to get more information. The calls typically appear to come from a local number, but that’s just a fake.

“At best, these calls are a disruptive nuisance,” said Lara Sutherlin, who leads the state Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. “At worst, they are a threat to the personal and financial information that consumers work hard to protect.”

Americans received an estimated 26 billion unwanted robocalls in 2018 — a 50 percent increase from the year before. Here in Wisconsin, the State Bureau of Consumer Protection reported that unwanted telemarketing calls were the top consumer complaint in 2018.

Things have gotten so bad that the Federal Communications Commission toured Wisconsin in June, visiting four communities with educational events about robocalls, spoofing and scams.

Robocallers have grown more brazen, too. The Washington Post last month reported that scammers are targeting hospitals and health care providers in hopes that a gullible doctor or other employee will hand over access to sensitive medical records.

The bills that passed the House and Senate aim to help. Both would increase potential fines on robocallers to $10,000 per call and lengthen the statute of limitations to three years from one. Both also give the FCC new powers to regulate and pursue penalties. Those powers are especially important because part of what has allowed robocalls to flourish is that the law hasn’t kept up with the technology.

Where the bills differ is just as important, though. The Senate approach is more “let’s study this some and come up with recommendations.” That’s not good enough. The technological, social and financial harms are well understood. Experts know what needs to be done.

The House bill, which Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should support, takes a tougher stand. It would impose a deadline on telecommunications companies to implement screening technology and to identify and block scam calls. The companies could not charge consumers for that service. The House bill also specifically addresses protecting hospitals.

Now congressional negotiators must reconcile the differences between the bills. The stronger House bill deserves preference. Americans don’t need the FCC to study the issue more. They need real tools as soon as possible so it will be safe to answer the phone again.

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