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Our view: Target 2019 to reduce scam calls

Herald editorial board When the cellphone rings, consider this before answering: There were 5 billion robocalls made nationwide in November alone, or about 16 per person, according to a company from California that tracks these bothersome calls. ...

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Herald editorial board

When the cellphone rings, consider this before answering: There were 5 billion robocalls made nationwide in November alone, or about 16 per person, according to a company from California that tracks these bothersome calls. The company, YouMail.com, figures the November robocall total is up from 2 billion in November 2016.

The number of robocalls with a North Dakota 701 area code was 2.4 million in November. In Minnesota's 218 area code, it was 5 million. Both of those call totals also have greatly increased in the past two years. It's so bad that the CEO of YouMail.com, Alex Quilici, told Forum News Service that 2018 is "absolutely" the worst year for robocalls in America.

What's a robocall? Generally speaking, they are automated telemarketing calls made by machines. Often, they are illegal, but the companies that use them usually don't care.

Things have gotten so high-tech that robocalls can be camouflaged using local numbers. So the supposed Grand Forks- or Grafton-based call that comes to a cellphone often isn't a friendly voice or known caller from town but instead is a nuisance call touting some insurance offer, pain ointment, vehicle warranty or alleged fine from the IRS.

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Earlier this year, we wrote that the Federal Communications Commission was working hard to stymie these annoying calls. That was in May, and the headline read "Good news in battle vs. robocalls." It came on the heels of the FCC's largest ever fine-$120 million - levied against a Florida man who evidently was responsible for more than 96 million unwanted phone calls. In September, the FCC levied another fine, this one totaling $82 million to another man whose company was making more than 200,000 calls daily.

It's not just calls, either. Text messages have become a scamming scourge, too.

Was that "Good news" headline back in May premature? Perhaps, but we do believe progress is being made.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to clarify that phone companies may block unwanted text messages. FCC Chairman Ajit Tai said the move is part of "empowering wireless providers to continue taking action against unwanted text messages."

And a Forum News Service report last week noted that in October, the Federal Communications Commission decided it will not require phone companies to put through every single phone call. In the past, the FCC had employed a technique similar to the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers every piece of mail that comes through its system. This new approach should help companies limit spam callers.

Also, the FCC has made changes to rules that authorize phone companies to block scammers early in the process, before they ring the phones of the unsuspecting. There also is a change that allows companies to block scammers by vetting invalid numbers.

These are good steps, but they require full participation by phone companies, and apparently, that's easier said than done. A more effective approach would be to require companies to act, rather than simply allowing them to.

Either way, steps are being taken and maybe 2019 will be the year progress is finally made against annoying cellphone scammers.

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