CONCORD — Congress may be soon ready to provide relief to all consumers and small business owners bothered by an explosion of scam robocalls, according to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Late last month, the U.S. Senate passed, 97-1, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act that would give regulators more time to find scammers, increase penalties for those who are caught and help coordinate enforcement to increase criminal prosecution of illegal robocall makers. “I really am optimistic we will be able to get this passed. Similar legislation is pending in the House and we hope there will be agreement between the two bodies in the near future,” Shaheen said during a news conference the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce hosted Friday.
Last year there were 107 million robocalls made to landline numbers in New Hampshire. Nationwide there were 47 billion robocalls.
Both Shaheen and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, also D-N.H., became cosponsors.
The measure became so popular that by last March there were 80 senators who had wanted to add their names to this bill.
Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti, who heads the state’s Consumer Protection Bureau, said this is the single most common complaint his office receives each year and those numbers are growing.
“We had 1,500 calls last year and the number and different kinds of scams are growing as well,” Boffetti said.
“The reality is that these scammers got ahead of regulators and (are) allowed by the touch of a button to generate millions of calls that got pumped out.”
The association of all state attorneys general has endorsed this measure.
During the past six months, the state Public Utilities Commission received 200 complaint calls mainly from those who were told by scammers their utility service would be cut off unless they made an immediate payment.
During all of 2018 there were only 100 such calls, Noonan said.
“This really is a huge spike that we see and of course we see it on our own phones at home. We got a complaint recently from a woman who said she got a call from herself. The caller ID said she was calling herself and she became really afraid that her identity had been stolen,” Noonan said.
Small business owners are a particular target for these utility service scams, she said.
“Friday at 3 p.m. is the perfect time that these calls would come in to a restaurant whose owners can ill afford to lose power for the weekend,” Noonan said.
Todd Fahey, executive director with the state chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), said these scammers particularly threaten senior citizens and use the technology to make it appear as if the calls are coming from inside the state.
An AARP survey last April found that three in five adults were likely to pick up a call that came from a local area code.
“The scammers have learned that fear sells so they are very good at making people think they have done something wrong so we see a lot people are told they might face arrest or be subject to a lien by the IRS unless they make a payment,” Fahey said.
“The best defense is often the best offense and that’s what this legislation would provide.”
Noonan said there are phone apps that can block all robocalls but that’s not always desirable since these are used by school districts to cancel classes and by power companies to warn about impending storms and the risk of power outages.
“They do have legitimate and valuable uses,” Noonan added.