North Dakota takes on robocallers

Rep. Mike Schatz says he is sick and tired of getting unwanted calls while he’s napping. “It annoys me very badly,” h

So he decided to seek help. “I called the attorney general and I said, ‘You know, what do I need to do? What law can I write up here as a legislator to stop this?” Schatz said.


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Now, the Republican representative from New England is sponsoring legislation that would urge the federal government to deal with a growing problem that affects anyone with a phone: robocalls.

Judging by the 89-0 vote in the House on HCR 3005, it’s clear he’s not the only legislator who’s annoyed.

Naps and peace of mind are common casualties of scam robocalls. That, and $9.5 billion in fraud annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

A robocall is an automated telephone call delivering a recorded message, usually on behalf of a telemarketing company or as part of a fraudulent scheme. An estimated 98 million robocalls are received daily in the United States, according to the FTC. Experts say those most affected are the elderly and vulnerable adult population who may not be as tech-savvy as younger consumers.

According to the Better Business Bureau of North Dakota and Minnesota, fraudulent robocalls are so effective that they are not only having an economic impact on those being scammed, but on some of the scammers themselves. Jamaica, where many fraudulent robocalls originate, is dealing with violent gang wars between rival fraud groups, who use the money gained from fraud schemes to buy guns and drugs, according to news reports. As a result, Jamaica, which has about the same population as Chicago but had more than double the murders last year, has declared a state of emergency over large parts of the island.

While illegal robocalls have an international impact, they were also the number one consumer complaint in North Dakota last year, according to a spokesperson for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Stenehjem signed a comment letter along with 35 other attorneys general calling on the federal government to give them and phone service providers additional authority to fight illegal robocalls.

Scam phone calls are a growing problem that are hard to combat due to new technologies.

“Virtually anyone can send millions of illegal robocalls and frustrate law enforcement with just a computer, inexpensive software and an internet connection,” the attorneys general wrote in their letter.

It’s hard to tell who is behind these fraudulent robocalls, Bess Ellenson, with the Better Business Bureau of North Dakota and Minnesota, said.

“We’ve got groups in the U.S. A lot of them are people overseas,” Ellenson said. Many originate from the Caribbean. “We see them coming from everywhere and it’s hard to trace them a lot of times because with technology these days you can make your phone number seem like it’s any number you want it to be.”

This technique is known as “neighbor spoofing.” Those behind the calls manipulate caller ID information to look as if the calls are coming locally, increasing the likelihood that one will answer. During a committee session, Sen. Randy Burkhard, R-Minot, said he once received a phone call from his own number.

The most common type of scam is sweepstakes, lottery and prize fraud, Ellenson said. She said each scam differs, but the format is the same.

“They would call and say you won something, you won a prize, but you have to give them certain information in order for them to get the prize to you,” Ellenson said.

Other popular scam formats include IRS scams, where the caller claims that you have unpaid taxes and must pay immediately or get arrested. Another is the emergency scam, where the caller pretends to be a relative in distress and needs money immediately. The scammer may even provide convincing details such as names of family members and schools, to convince the relative that they are who they claim to be.

To those who may be wondering what they can do to avoid being scammed, Ellenson has a simple message:

“Don’t answer. If you do, hang up right away. Block the number. Sign up for the Do Not Call registry.” The Do Not Call list will stop some, but not all the unwanted calls, she said.

Ellenson said that by even just answering the call, scammers know the number is active and will continue to bombard it with unwanted calls.

While there’s not much consumers can do, many assume the government can take action.

Not so, Schatz said, at least on the state level. He was told by the Attorney General that since the calls travel over state lines, it becomes a federal commerce issue.

“There’s nothing the states can do, so it’s up to the federal government. If enough people protest, maybe we’ll get some action,” Schatz testified.

The state Senate has yet to act on Schatz’ proposal.

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