EDITORIAL: State must get serious about robocalls

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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Robocalls are more than just annoying.

More than just time-consuming. More than just invasive and costly to those with limited minutes on their phone plans.

They’re actually plying us with misinformation that undermines our ability to make vital decisions about our government, our purchases and our lives.

Earlier this month, the state attorney general announced an investigation into reports that voters in New York were receiving robocalls spreading disinformation about the election and encouraging them to stay home on Election Day.

The purveyors of this misinformation can exercise all the free speech they want. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to invade our privacy through our phones without any checks on their conduct.

Robocalls target the elderly in particular with scams such as Social Security Administration, fake covid tests for Medicare recipients and small business listings. In many of the cases, the scammers try to convince people to turn over personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank account information and even PIN numbers for gift cards. It only takes a few people willing to give up this information to make a scam profitable.

Each day, New Yorkers receive about 10 million robocalls, many of which are unsolicited and unwelcome.

And if you’ve noticed an uptick in the calls you’ve received during the holiday shopping season, it’s no coincidence.

Stopping robocalls will take a complex legal and technical endeavor that will require the full effort and cooperation of the state and federal government, service providers and technological experts to rein in.

One of the priorities of the new state Legislature in January should be to begin tackling this problem in a comprehensive way.

One action lawmakers can take immediately that might have at least a modest effect is passage of a bill introduced this past January (A675D/S3297D) that would limit robocalls to state residents by requiring telephone service providers to offer free call-mitigation technology to their customers.

Some providers already offer this technology, and there are apps phone customers can download. But this law would make the requirement free and standard for all companies.

In addition to the tech requirement, the bill would limit the use of robocalls to those made for emergency purposes (such as weather and traffic alerts) and to those that are made with prior consent of the called party (think school closing notifications or special discounts offered by favored retailers).

Labor unions would be able to make robocalls to members. And residents would be able to revoke permission any time.

The bill passed the Senate in January but died in the Assembly. The two houses need to resolve whatever differences they have and pass this bill when they return next year.

Another way to stop robocalls would be to update and enforce do-not-call registries, where individuals register their phone numbers to prohibit marketers from contacting them.

But the technology and legislation hasn’t kept up with the means marketers use to get around the law, with lawmakers even carving out exemptions that favor the robocall companies over consumers.

And enforcement of penalties for violators has been increasingly lax.

Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed doubling the current fines for violating the Do Not Call Registry limitations from $11,000 to $22,000.

State and federal lawmakers need to consider putting more effort into upgrading the technology and putting more teeth into the law with greater enforcement and higher fines.

But while these measures might limit robocalls to some degree, it’s going to take a comprehensive effort by all those involved to make a significant impact.

One problem is the technology. Another is the challenge of identifying legitimate robocalls from those used to scam people and spread misinformation.

New York should convene a task force of tech leaders, legal specialists, government officials, consumer groups and law enforcement to offer solutions for both the short-term reduction of robocalls and the long-term regulation of them.

A task force with deadlines and tangible goals could be an effective way to move the ball forward.

Whatever lawmakers and other state officials do, the one thing they can’t do is continue to paw at the problem and hope it will magically go away. It won’t.

Without significant government intervention and industry cooperation, it’s only going to get worse.

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