Robocalls — those nettlesome autodial telephone calls from both scammers and legitimate businesses — skyrocketed in the first half of 2018, and have prompted the most complaints to federal and most state enforcement officials of any consumer topic in recent years.
But as much as top state law enforcement officers would love to go after the robocallers, who often operate outside the law, the combined hurdles of technology, economics and geography make the job difficult.
Unwanted calls are the biggest complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, making up about 60 percent of complaints the agency gets. Robocalls also are the top complaint at the Federal Trade Commission, which in fiscal 2017 received more than 4.5 million robocall complaints.
While states are trying to crack down — a tougher law was enacted in Connecticut, for example, and legislation is pending in a handful of other states — they face almost insurmountable obstacles because often the callers are offshore. And while telephone companies are taking steps to help combat the calls, state officials imply they are not helping enough.
"There is a problem with a lot of these calls emanating from overseas," said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat. "The practicalities of enforcement become problematic."
State attorneys general know what makes their constituents mad because they hear it. And the calls are not just nuisances — consumers are cheated out of an estimated $350 million a year by phone scams, many involving automatic dialing, according to the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.
States are trying to act. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, in June signed a bill adding criminal fines and penalties to the state's anti-robocall statute. The law goes into effect in October.
In Massachusetts, a bill making its way through the Legislature would prohibit robocalls to mobile devices and impose penalties including fines starting at $10,000 for each violation.
In New Jersey, a bill urging the FCC to require landline and wireless telephone service providers to implement technology to block robocalls to customers, free of charge, is also working its way through the Legislature.
A New York bill similarly would limit autodialed telephone calls to state residents and require telephone service providers to provide free "call mitigation technology."
Ian Barlow, the FTC's Do Not Call program coordinator, acknowledges that state efforts to subvert illegal robocall scams are limited, but he said states also serve an important function in coordinating with federal agencies to crack down on large scam operations.
Barlow pointed to a 2015 case involving the FTC and 10 states from Florida to Washington that resulted in Caribbean Cruise Lines being barred from robocalling.
"I think there are some challenges for states," Barlow said, adding that states were at the forefront of the Do Not Call lists before the effort spread nationwide. He said states often identify "bad actors" quickly. When states sue bad actors, they stop operating there, though they often move on to other states until the feds get involved.
Among the challenges, Barlow said, is that cellphone owners can take their mobile numbers with them when they move across state lines. "Number portability makes it a trickier issue," he said. "That doesn't mean [states] are ineffective."
Phone customers are simply fed up, said Maureen Mahoney, a Consumers Union public policy fellow. She urged all levels of government, along with the phone companies, to use all methods to stop the unwanted calls.
"I think it's important for every consumer to have strong legal protections against robocalls," she said. "If we see progress in one or two states, that could lead to more states and help push the FCC and the Congress to take action. FCC has said addressing robocalls is a priority, but the problem continues to get worse."
Robocalls are the No. 1 consumer complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, its chairman said last year. "It's the No. 1 consumer complaint," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, referencing the national figures. "The Do Not Call list doesn't work."
That list is not the real problem, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which is the lead federal agency, along with the FCC, in tracking and prosecuting unlawful telephone scams, which often involve robocalls.
The Do Not Call Registry, on which telephone customers can put their numbers and request not to be bothered by telemarketers, does work — up to a point.
The call registry does the job it was intended to do by blocking calls from companies that follow the law, said Barlow, of the FTC. "If people are speeding on the highway, does that mean speed limits are broken?"
The problem is that many companies, both in the United States and overseas, don't obey the law.
That's because the risk is worth the reward, said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, the Irvine, California-based company that sells other enhanced telephone and email services in addition to its call-blocking app.
"It's so easy to make them and so cheap to make them," he said of the calls. "You don't even need expertise to become a robocaller. You upload an audio file and upload numbers, press a button, and it makes the calls."
And if the scammers are getting thousands of dollars every time they succeed, "it becomes 'why not?' if you are a bad guy," he said.
Jon Banks, senior vice president for law and policy at USTelecom, the trade group for phone companies, agreed. "It's part of the blessing and curse of the internet," he said. "It is cheap to send these calls over the internet. And it appears, sadly, you can make money with these robocalls."
A recent robocall scam involved asking people — in Mandarin Chinese — to get in touch with "the embassy" to "pick up an important document" and to press zero for more information. Some of the calls apparently ask for money, others for personal information, after zero was pressed.
The calls were directed at area codes where a significant number of Chinese immigrants live, though many calls to non-Mandarin speakers would have to be made in a city like Washington to find enough susceptible Mandarin speakers to prove profitable.
People often inadvertently give consent to receiving robocalls by failing to read the fine print in documents they sign regarding loans, doctors, prescription drug companies and hundreds of other legitimate uses.
If a drugstore automatically calls to say you need to refill a prescription, that's a "good" robocall. A school system calling to say that it's a snow day is another example.
"But the good ones are being swamped now by the ones people don't want," Quilici said.
He attributes the dramatic rise in the number of calls, ironically, to enhanced efforts to stop them, including people refusing to answer calls from numbers they don't recognize. If more people put blocking software on their phones, or let the calls go to voicemail routinely, that means the automatic callers must dial more numbers to succeed.
Madigan, the Illinois attorney general, called for more blocking by phone companies.
"What needs to be done is the carriers need to start blocking them," she said. "A lot of states are not going to have the investigative capacity to look into overseas calls."
Telephone carriers say they are doing it already.
Banks, of the trade group, said the networks internally block unwanted calls as well as offering consumers apps to curb the calls such as Nomorobo. Some apps are free but many require payments, he said.
Nomorobo costs about $2 a month for cellphones and is free for land lines, according to its website. The blocking software won a 2012 contest organized by the Federal Trade Commission to develop the best concept to thwart robocalls. Since then, many imitators have sprung up.
"We've put together a group of over 20 carriers to help [law enforcement] trace calls back to try to get to their origins," Banks said. Finding where the calls originate is complicated by robocallers' "spoofing" — creating a familiar-looking fake number that may use a phone customer's home area code or three-digit neighborhood number.
Both Banks and YouMail's Quilici agreed that coming technology may be the ultimate solution to dampening the robocalls to the point that they parallel email spam. While spam was a pervasive problem just a few years ago, spam filters slowly became better, to the point where today most spam ends up in a junk folder or is blocked altogether.
The FTC is working on a way to identify spoofed numbers that mirror legitimate area codes and exchanges and trace them back to their real origins.
The technology was given acronyms only a government bureaucrat would love: SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) and STIR (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited).