Say, here's an idea for something Congress can do while it anxiously awaits release of the Mueller report. How about doing something to directly — and positively — help countless millions of Americans every single day?
Stop all those damn robocalls that plague us once and for all! No one on the planet welcomes a robocall. No one. We dutifully sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry, but they still come, billions of times every month. They are the daily bane of our already harried existence.
There is a renewed move in the U.S. Senate to crack down on companies that launch these maddening and mostly illegal intrusions, but frankly, I fear it is way too little, way too late. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., have a bill that they say could help cut down these calls. We've heard this before from other senators, like Chuck Schumer, whose bill to deal with the problem died in committee in 2016. Color me skeptical of this latest attempt.
The inaptly named Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act carries only civil consequences, not criminal penalties, for those who chronically disturb our peace and scam our citizens with these calls. Instead, the legislation calls for the Federal Communications Commission to increase fines to up to $10,000 per call, and it allows the FCC to go after intentional violators for up to three years instead of the current one-year window.
The proposal also requires adoption of authentication technologies so consumers can have more confidence that incoming calls and texts are from legitimate numbers. And, it brings together the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Departments of Justice, Commerce, State and other federal agencies, along with state attorneys general so they can devise ideas on how to deter and prosecute robocall scammers. Shouldn't they already have been doing that? Federal laws against unwanted calls have been on the books since 1991!
This TRACED Act seems to be a big yawn. Upping the fines for robocallers will be meaningless. The Wall Street Journal reports that since 2015, the FCC has ordered bad actors to pay more than $208 million. Guess how much has been collected. Just $6,790. Pathetic. To be fair, the FCC doesn't have the authority it needs to collect from all the violators, so it passes cases to the DOJ, where they, apparently, fall into a black hole.
I can't understand why anyone would fall for a robocall scam, but people do. And the unscrupulous make so much money from the racket that paying fines is just part of the cost of doing business. Smaller players simply declare bankruptcy and move on, perhaps to start another robocall group.
To borrow a phrase from actor Peter Finch in the movie "Network," "I'm mad as hell and not going to take this anymore!" The other day I counted that of the 12 calls I got on my cellphone, eight of them were pre-taped messages trying to get money from me. This even though I long ago joined that toothless Do Not Call registry.
I say it is time to get tough with these people. How about attaching criminal penalties to this pending Senate bill? If the culprit running the company is a repeat offender, make the punishment include actual prison time. Don't give up completely on the fines, but don't accept cash. Instead, seize the personal property of the boss — homes, vehicles or business buildings — to satisfy any monetary penalty. Nefarious activity is only stopped when the person at the top has to pay a personal price rather than just write a check.
Look, there are good and legal uses for robocalling technology — calls alerting people to an emergency situation, upcoming appointments, a delayed school opening or a pharmacy refill, for example. Also legal now are those annoying calls from politicians looking for votes — which I would gladly do without.
(Wait a minute. Am I on to something here? Maybe our elected officials' lack of definitive action to shut down robocallers stems from the fear of disrupting their own campaign tactics. Hmmm.)
There were an estimated 26.3 billion robocalls last year, and likely, billions more will come this year. Something drastic has to happen! Congress has to find the guts to stamp out this menace.
Some phone companies have introduced their own call-filtering apps. The premium versions will cost you a recurring monthly fee (usually $2.99), but the app's reliability in blocking spam calls is reported to sometimes be "spotty." There are several other independent apps out there, too. But is it fair that we must take steps to stop the illegal actions of others?
We could all run around trying to find ways to block these miserable calls, or Congress could do its job and protect us from them. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, "Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box," is available on Amazon.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.