Hello, who’s there? Maybe fewer scammers.

A rare piece of bipartisan legislation recently passed by Congress promises to get tougher on annoying and harmful robocalls. But continuing to just say no to answering them will still be the last line of defense.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
A man works on his cell phone at an internet cafe in Tehran, Iran.

For many people scam robocalls may be no more than a minor nuisance, the price of being part of an ever-more-connected world. 

But for a more vulnerable minority these calls can result in real harm. Older Americans, in particular, are being targeted with impostor calls claiming to be from government agencies, most often the Social Security Administration. They’re told their account has an urgent problem. Unwittingly people give out sensitive information about themselves. 

Nearly 73,000 people reported these impostor scams in the first six months of 2019, the Federal Trade Commission reported, resulting in some $17 million in losses to individuals.

Robocalls to U.S. phones numbered 48 billion in 2018, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking service. The 2019 total is expected to be much higher, perhaps near 60 billion.

While listing a phone number on the federal government’s Do Not Call Registry will filter out some sales calls from the legitimate businesses that abide by it, criminal scammers ignore it.

But help is on the way. The United States House and Senate have each passed a bill, with strong support from both sides of the aisle, that clamps down on robocall scammers. While it’s far from a perfect or lasting solution, it’s a worthwhile step in the right direction. The legislation is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Robocalls often arrive displaying fake telephone numbers that use area codes and exchanges similar to those of a person’s friends or family. That can entice the person being called to answer. 

Among the provisions in the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act is a system called STIR/SHAKEN that identifies when the displayed phone number and the real number of origin don’t match. The Federal Communications Commission will also be able to levy fines of up to $10,000 per call on scammers, and it will no longer have to first issue a warning to the scammer before taking action, speeding up enforcement.

The legislation also addressed “one ring” scams in which the robocall rings just once and disconnects. These mysterious calls cause some people to call the number back, only to be hit with expensive overseas long-distance fees.

Not all automated calls are evil. Some can be from legitimate, even welcomed sources, such as a local government or utility providing emergency information, or a business giving an update about a real purchase. Efforts to stamp out bad actors must make sure these calls still get through.

Eliminating robocall scams altogether may take years to accomplish, coordinating the efforts of government agencies and phone companies. Until then, the last line of defense will always lie with the consumer. 

People can block calls from obvious scammed numbers. But the most effective deterrent is the simplest: If a number isn’t familiar, don’t pick up. Any legitimate caller can just leave a message. 

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