“We’ve had a recent urgent update on your Medicare coverage,” said the robocall. A second followed announcing: “We’ve been trying to reach you concerning your car’s extended warranty.” 

Caller ID won’t help you these days to know it’s a robocall: the phone number and place where the call is supposedly coming from often is listed as a nearby community and sometimes where you live. As I’m writing this column, I received a robocall—the caller ID said it was made from where I live, Sag Harbor—saying: “This is from Social Security administration…Your Social Security number was used in Texas. To get more information, press 1.”

I just called the number that the caller ID listed for the supposed “Social Security Administration” and the message was: “The number you dialed is not in service.”

Robocall Index reports that 85.2 million robocalls were made in 2020 to Suffolk County’s 631 area code as of Aug. 20. It says as of Aug. 20 nationally 30.1 billion robocalls were made in 2020. That’s 118.3 million per day, 4.9 million per hour, 1.4 thousand per second. The country is on its way to the same volume of annual robocalls—58 billion—made in 2019, up from 47.8 billion in 2018.

We bought a new answering machine several years ago but it just provides blocking for a maximum of 250 numbers. Answering machines now would need to be able to block thousands of robocall numbers.

A National Do Not Call Registry took effect in 2003.  But, says the web page titled “Robocalls” of the Federal Trade Commission, it “is designed to stop sales calls from real companies that follow the law. The registry is a list that tells telemarketers what numbers not to call…Scammers don’t care if you’re on the Registry.”

Both the FTC and Federal Communications Commission on the national level are trying to do something about robocalls. 

This July, according to the FCC’s web pages covering robocalls, it meted out a $224 million fine for a “telemarketer” who “made approximately 1 billion” calls in a “robocall campaign” claiming to be selling “health insurance” including to those on the Do Not Call List.” The agency says: “Unwanted calls are far and away the biggest consumer complaint to the FCC.”

In New York, there’s a measure “pending” in the state Legislature, originally introduced last year, that could eliminate robocalls in New York.

“At the center of the bill is consent,” explains state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. from Sag Harbor, one of 55 Assembly co-sponsors of the legislation. His district includes Center Moriches, East Moriches and parts of Shirley and Mastic. 

The bill is titled the “Robocall Prevention Act” and among its provisions—its central one—is its requirement that a robocall can only be “made with the prior express consent of the called party.”

Who in New York, or the United States, would give her or his consent to receive robocalls? I’d venture nobody, period.

The bill was passed in the Senate in 2019 but wasn’t voted upon in the Assembly, and Thiele wants action this year.

Consumer Action and Consumers Union, have both been active in taking on robocalls. (Linda Sherry, who earlier was a journalist and editor in Suffolk County, is the director of national priorities of Consumer Action.)

A Consumer Action piece last year titled “The Robocall Scourge” declared: “Those automated telephone calls that deliver pre-recorded messages to your landline or cell phone—aka “robocalls”—are bombarding consumers’ devices at alarming rates…Spoofed robocalls are an increasing problem for phone owners. These calls use fraudulent caller identification information to disguise the caller’s true identity. For instance, a con artist will “spoof,” fake, the name and/or number on a phone’s call display…Spoofing legitimate numbers makes it more likely you will answer the phone and fall for the con.” (The “Robocall Prevention Act” would make this illegal.)

Consumer Action points to “robocall combat tools” noting there “are a slew of call blocker devices available for purchase that you attach to the phone line….Typically, the devices come pre-programmed with thousands of known spam numbers to block, and they allow you to add new numbers as they come in. You can find retailers and product reviews…by doing an online search for ‘landline call blockers.’ Or, your carrier might offer devices on their website, like Verizon.” Also recommended is Nomorobo with its system that “checks each incoming phone number” and, “If you receive a spam call, Nomorobo intercepts…and disconnects it.”

I’d say the ideal remedy is government (it should go national) requiring that a robocall can only be made to a person who gives “prior express consent.” That could end the scourge.