I must confess to having done something very bad at some point in my life. I don’t know what that might have been, but I am being punished for it several times every single day - by the evil spirits of telecommunications. Here is how the punishment is meted out.
Our landline phone starts ringing with some number ID like “public school”. (I know that’s a fake because I am not a student, not a parent, not a member of the school board.) Nevertheless, some telemarketer has my number. Even more insidious are those calls that show up on my caller ID system as something like “unknown number.” I have to answer. It might be something important. (Of course, being retired, not a whole lot is that important.) While I’m slowly deciding (remember I’m retired), my dog starts to howl most piteously. Then my other dog joins in with her harmony. I would be happy, deliriously so, to let the telemarketer on the line listen to the canine cacophony, but I know that it’s just a robot on the other end. So. I hang up and sprint to my office and hit a couple of buttons on my call blocker to consign the call to robocall hell. It does some good, I suppose. However, one of the really maddening things about this stuff is that I know that the same telemarketing goons will just find a different number and call me back again tomorrow.
Good God, here’s another call commanding me to not hang up or else Microsoft will stop my computer, or I’ll miss out on my chance for a free knee brace, or my car will stop working or, … Will they never end?
The New York Times opinion columnist Gail Collins answers with Let’s Destroy Robocalls. She covers the history of attempts, mostly futile, by Congress to stop such invasions of our privacy. We know members of Congress get paid off by various interest groups, like the NRA. Do you suppose that the telecom industry does the same? Collins does not address that possibility but she does describe renewed efforts to get something done to reduce my punishment.
But good news! We’re getting some action. I know “Congress is working on a bill” is not as encouraging as, say, “Let me pour you a drink and change the subject.” But still.
In the House, Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey has a proposal called Stopping Bad Robocalls, which certainly gets to the point. Pallone is the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and it’s fair to say he has a healthy chance of getting something done.
Things are more problematic in the Senate, which, as you may have noticed, is barely capable of getting its act together long enough to salute the flag. However, Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts — the man who helped give us that Telephone Consumer Protection Act in 1991 — has teamed up with Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota to sponsor a bipartisan plan. It’s called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, which I certainly hope you noticed spells out Traced. (Or, O.K., Traceda if you wanted to be really technical.)
The bill, Markey says, is “a perfect example” of lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle getting together and “agreeing we don’t want our wireless devices in our pocket to be called by total strangers 10, 15 times a day.”
Pretty low bar, yes? Perhaps someday we will see a liberal from California and a conservative from Arkansas get together to fight against people who throw beer bottles out of their car window when they’re in the passing lane on the highway.
But let’s not be cynical. Markey says, “If this bill can’t pass then no bill can pass,” and he’s probably right. You need to root him on, given that the other option is falling back in your chair and moaning, “No bill can pass.” Come on.
The idea is to make telephone companies try much harder to identify and block slimy robocalls. And to bring enforcement groups together to find new ways to prosecute the scammers. I know it doesn’t sound all that dramatic, but if you want people to stop calling you every day with offers to repay your student loans, it’s a better strategy than repeatedly screaming “I graduated in 1980!” into the phone.
In the meantime perhaps some electrical engineer can figure out a robocall killer for my phone. Perhaps an extra button that would send some electronic gremlin back down the phone line and fries the telemarketer’s phone and computer. That would be adequate compensation for my years of punishment for no infraction more grievous than just having a telephone.