For most Americans, robocalls are an inescapable annoyance, thanks to scammers, telemarketers and debt-collectors that target smartphones and landlines at all hours of the day.
The plea for help came Tuesday as House lawmakers embarked on a new effort to crack down on robocalls that rang consumers’ mobile phones roughly 26 billion times in 2018, according to one industry estimate. The calls largely are the work of fraudsters who mask their identities by using phone numbers that resemble those that they’re trying to contact, a tactic known as spoofing that’s meant to dupe consumers into answering the phone and then surrendering personal information.
The robocall deluge has proven especially alarming for hospitals, treatment centers and other health-related organizations, said Dave Summitt, the chief information security officer at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. Testifying at a before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he said the institute received roughly 6,600 external calls over a recent 90-day period that “were either malicious intent, or identified themselves as someone they’re not,” using numbers that appeared to be coming from within the cancer center itself.
Other robocalls misrepresented themselves as federal agencies — including the U.S. Justice Department — and sought to deceive the center’s doctors into surrendering information about their medical license, according to Summitt’s testimony. In other cases, scammers spoofed the cancer center’s number and targeted some of its nearly 60,000 patients. And the Moffitt institute said it struggled to solicit help from its telecommunications carrier, which it declined to name in testimony. At times, the carrier prevented officials from filing a complaint or obtaining the source of the unwanted calls so it could take action, Summitt said.
“When you’re sitting here, and you’re in a health-care situation, and you’re seeing a phone call coming from inside the organization, you’re going to pick the thing up,” he said. “If they happen to get a hold of one of our patients … they are absolutely going to answer that phone.”
“They are making money, and they’re doing it on the backs of patients and other consumers,” Summitt added. “And in the process, they’re hurting us very badly.”
Summitt’s call to action illustrates the broad array of issues facing lawmakers as they consider updating the government’s decades-old anti-robocall rules. The House hearing Tuesday focused on seven potential changes, including a bill to toughen criminal penalties for scammers and another that would outlaw a broader array of automated calls, including those from debt collectors.
At a moment when Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are viciously divided, often unable even to address issues on which they agree, lawmakers from both parties expressed hope that they could find a common foe in robocalls.
“Regulators and industry need better tools to protect consumers, and once again, it is time for Congress to act,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.).
But House lawmakers on Tuesday opted against considering a bill meant to prod the country’s telecom carriers into adopting the latest anti-robocall technology. The Traced Act received early support in the Republican-controlled Senate last month, and its omission could foreshadow political disagreements between the two chambers that could prevent reform this year.
For its part, a lobbying organization that represents companies including AT&T and Verizon stressed the industry’s recent work to implement new technology that would flag consumers to potential spam calls. “There is no single solution to ending the scourge of robocalls, but progress is being made every day,” Patrick Halley, a senior vice president at the industry association USTelecom, told the committee.
Summitt, the chief information security officer at Moffitt, said those changes had not come fast enough.
“Our technology today can do things to help put this down,” he said, “and I’m asking for that to be pushed forward faster than it is.”