Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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Washington attorney general pushes to strengthen laws against robocalls


Bad news. Your car’s extended warranty has expired. No, wait, your health insurance premiums are in danger of doubling. And now the IRS says there’s a problem with your tax return.

Don’t worry, there’s good news, too. You’re eligible for a low-interest home improvement loan. And your government stimulus check is ready to be wired to your account.

Those are all lies, of course, fed to you over the phone by scammy robocallers, automated operations that call millions, billions of phone numbers trying to fool people into sending them money. There is a federal “do not call” list that you can register for that’s supposed to stop you from receiving unwanted automated sales calls. It does not work particularly well.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is pushing to bolster the state’s laws against robocallers, hoping to provide more protections and enforcement mechanism in the Sisyphean battle against spam scam callers.

A 2021 poll of more than 2,000 people, conducted by The Harris Poll for Truecaller, found that nearly 1 in 3 American adults say they’ve fallen victim to a phone scam. Nearly 60% of Americans said they’d received scam calls or text messages within the last year.

A study from YouMail, a robocall blocking app, found that Washington residents received . That’s 80 robocalls for every person in the state.

The Federal Trade Commission has, over the past decade-plus, filed hundreds of lawsuits against companies for violating the do not call list’s regulations, collecting hundreds of millions in fines. Companies can be fined up to $43,000 per call for illegally calling numbers on the registry.

The Federal Communications Commission, just last week, proposed a fine of nearly $300 million against two men it accused of conducting the car warranty robocall campaign. The FCC said the robocall campaign, over the course of just three months in 2021, made more than 5 billion robocalls to more than 500 million phone numbers. The proposed fine would be the largest ever against a robocalling operation.

But it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Washington residents, in 2021, filed more than 100,000 complaints with the FTC about robocalls.

Ferguson called Washington’s laws against robocalls “weak and out of date.”

His proposed legislation (House Bill 1051), sponsored by Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, would, for the first time, make it a violation under state law to call numbers registered on the do not call list. That would let the state attorney general go after lawbreaking spam callers, in addition to federal agencies.

“It’s time to stop illegal robocalls,” Ferguson said in a prepared statement. “The Legislature must give Washingtonians stronger and clearer legal protections against the daily bombardment of illegal robocalls — and provide additional tools to my office to hold bad actors accountable.”

The legislation would also make it illegal for voice service providers to knowingly assist illegal robocalls. And it intends to stop robocallers from “spoofing” caller ID screens to mask who is calling.

“Our seniors, youth and most financially fragile neighbors are experiencing more and more scams in the form of robocalls and other electronic messages to cell phones,” Leavitt said in a prepared statement. “Addressing the gap in protections to root out these scams is the least we can do to protect our fellow Washingtonians.”

Florida and Oklahoma both recently passed similar legislation.

Some robocalls are and would remain legal, regardless of the do not call list. Those include calls about political candidates, charities asking for donations and informational messages about things like flight statuses and school closures.

Ferguson, earlier this year, launched an anti-robocall initiative that includes a dedicated form for Washington residents to report robocalls.

And there’s a website with some tips on how to avoid falling for robocall scams: Don’t trust caller ID, don’t give out personal information (passwords, Social Security numbers, etc.) over the phone, do not send money, hang up.