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The latest threat from the government shutdown: More robo-calls

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Robo-calls keep ringing and ringing Americans' phones — and the government shutdown could make the never-ending assault even worse.

With federal agencies closed, consumers have been left with few options to defend against the tidal wave of unwanted automated calls coming from telemarketers, scam artists and debt collectors that target Americans' home phones and mobile devices at all hours of the day.

In Washington, federal regulators aren’t around to administer the nation’s anti-robo-call rules. They can’t take consumers’ complaints, warn Americans about potential fraud or investigate the worst offenders, experts say. Already, some scammers even appear to be trying to target Americans about the shutdown itself.

“It’s a neighborhood with no police on the beat,” said Alex Quilici, the chief executive of YouMail, an app that helps users block robo-calls.

Even before the government’s funding lapsed, robo-calls had become a major headache in the United States. In December, YouMail estimated that nearly 5 billion auto-dialed calls had been placed that month to consumers nationwide. Another company predicted that half of all U.S. calls by early 2019 could come from scammers trying to harass Americans. The constant interruptions have triggered a groundswell of criticism from robo-call recipients who think Washington regulators aren’t doing enough to stop the problem.

But federal officials say the shutdown, now in its 21st day, could add to the robo-call onslaught and give more cover to those who try to break the law.

“The number of robo-calls consumers are receiving is insane,” Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said Thursday. “The problem just keeps growing. Shutting down the government is not going to help.”

At the moment, there’s no one around to administer the country’s Do Not Call list, the official government registry where consumers can ask legitimate businesses not to call them. Those who have tried to add their numbers to the list have encountered a Web page that says the government is “unable to offer this website service at this time,” a notice that drew a flood of angry comments on Reddit, Twitter and other social media sites this week.

Gail Streich, a retired federal employee in Great Falls, Mont., said that a recent uptick in robo-calls targeting her husband’s phone prompted her to try to double check that his number was on the registry — but she couldn’t access it. Asked if the robo-calls have worsened during the shutdown, she said Friday: “I definitely think it has.”

Federal agencies aren’t around to collect consumers' complaints about fraudsters, either: The consumer complaint portal on the FCC and Federal Trade Commission websites — which serve as potential starting points for federal investigations — have been disabled for days, leaving consumers few options to seek help.

Roberta Koubek, a resident of Berkeley Heights, N.J., who said she’s “regularly” the victim of unwanted calls, tried to inform the government Thursday about a concerning spam call she received. On the other line of an unrecognizable 1-800-number, a voice kept repeating: “Your Social Security number is going to be blocked,” Koubek recalled. But she couldn’t reach anyone at the FTC because of the shutdown. “It was clearly intended to frighten whoever was on the other side of this,” she said of the call.

Nor can the government share alerts about potential scams or publish data that might help engineers block robo-calls through third-party apps. Typically the two agencies that monitor robo-calls — the FCC and FTC — release that data weekly. Third-party smartphone apps are still able to offer their robo-call-blocking services without interruption, and while they say they have not noticed a spike in the total number of robo-calls since the shutdown began, some fear the potential for abuse increases with each day the government remains shuttered.

In Washington, spokesmen at the FCC and FTC could not comment because they are closed during the shutdown. Contacted directly, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and FTC Chairman Joseph Simons did not respond to requests for comment.

Already, one concern is that scammers could turn the shutdown into a way to try to deceive consumers — or that telemarketers could use it to scare people into picking up.

The robo-call-blocking smartphone app Nomorobo, for example, has registered a “severe” degree of consumer complaints this week about robo-calls related to federal tax collectors. One frequent complaint is a voice mail with unknown origin claiming that “the recent government shutdown is affecting your standing with the IRS,” adding that while Internal Revenue Service “operations are down, billing and collections remain active.” The message came from a number that Nomorobo has flagged as one of its “top robo-calls.”

In the past, the FTC has warned about coordinated scams tied to the news and alerted consumers about the potential risks, said Terrell McSweeny, a former Democratic commissioner at the agency. Robo-call campaigns have targeted consumers around Tax Day or taken aim at victims of natural disasters who are looking for federal aid.

“Shuttering the FTC’s efforts to alert consumers and crack down on robo-calls has the potential to give them the upper hand,” McSweeny said.

Before the U.S. government closed its doors in December, it heard an earful from consumers and critics who felt regulators hadn’t done enough to stem the robo-call scourge. One report from Transaction Network Services, a Reston, Va.-based company that helps carriers connect their calls, found in October that one-third of all calls are considered to be “high risk,” including robo-calls pushing scams and fraud.

In recent months, the FCC has handed down several multimillion-dollar fines targeting the worst offenders while pressuring telecom giants, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, to implement new technical standards to spare consumers from unwanted calls. But the sheer volume of robo-calls has spiked dramatically over the past year, prompting some, including Rosenworcel, to say the telecom agency should act more aggressively and force wireless carriers to improve their defense.

With the shutdown, Jim Terrell, senior director for product marketing at TNS, said it “remains to be seen whether bad actor robo-callers will become more aggressive in the absence of oversight.”

But, he warned: “Individuals should remain extra vigilant with robo-calls during the shutdown.”