Those pesky robocalls — at best annoying disturbances and at worst costly financial scams — are getting worse.
In an age when cellphones have become extensions of our bodies, robocallers now follow people wherever they go, disrupting business meetings, church services and bedtime stories with their children.
Though automated calls have long plagued consumers, the volume has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching an estimated 3.4 billion in April, says YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service. That's an increase of almost 900 million a month compared with a year ago.
Federal lawmakers have noticed the surge. The House and Senate held hearings on the issue in the past two weeks, and each chamber has either passed or introduced legislation aimed at curbing abuses. Federal regulators have also noticed, issuing rules in November that give phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.
Despite these efforts, robocalls are a thorny problem to solve. Calls can travel through various carriers and a maze of networks, making it hard to pinpoint their origins, enabling the callers to evade rules. Regulators are working with the telecommunications industry to find ways to authenticate calls, which would help unmask the callers.
In the meantime, the deceptive measures have become more sophisticated. In one tactic, known as "neighborhood spoofing," robocallers use local numbers in the hope that recipients will be more likely to pick up.
It's a trick that Gary Pess, a hand surgeon in Eatontown, N.J., knows all too well. He receives so many calls that mimic his area code and the first three digits of his phone number that he no longer answers them. But having to sort robocalls from emergency calls has cost him precious minutes.
Pess recounted an incident in which he didn't recognize a number and figured it was a robocall. He later learned the call was from an emergency room doctor who wanted Pess to reattach a patient's severed thumb. "It delayed the treatment of a patient," Pess said.
Consumer advocates say they worry the flood of calls could get even worse. A federal court ruling recently struck down a Barack Obama-era definition of an auto-dialer, leaving it to the Federal Communications Commission to come up with new guidance. Advocates fear that will open up the field to even more robocallers, leaving consumers with little recourse.
Business groups, including the Consumer Bankers Association, counter that defining auto-dialers too broadly would hurt legitimate businesses trying to reach their customers.
Robocallers see the current FCC leadership "as friendly to industry," said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center. "And they are anticipating FCC rulings that will enable more calling and forgive past mistakes — or violations of the current law."
A spokesman for the FCC said the commission would seek public comment on how auto-dialers should be defined and then "take action based on the record it compiles."
Automated calls are increasing because they are cheap and easy to make. Robocallers can easily dial millions of consumers daily, experts say, at little cost.
That's essentially what one accused robocaller told legislators at a Senate hearing last month: Adrian Abramovich, a Miami man who regulators say made nearly 100 million "spoofed" robocalls, was peddling vacation packages that were advertised as coming from well-known companies such as Marriott. But when consumers pressed to hear more, they were transferred to foreign call centers often trying to sell time shares, said the FCC, which is seeking a $120 million fine. Abramovich has denied the charges and asked the FCC to reduce the penalty.
The calls are increasing despite stepped-up enforcement and other efforts to stamp them out, efforts some have likened to a game of Whac-a-Mole; robocallers find new phone numbers to hide behind once their numbers are ignored or blocked.
The federal Do Not Call List, which is supposed to help consumers avoid robocalls, instead resembles a tennis net trying to stop a flood. The list may prevent some (but not all) legitimate companies from calling people on the list, but it does little to deter fraudsters and marketers, some of them overseas, who are willing to take their chances and flout the law.
Complaints to federal regulators are also increasing sharply. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the Do Not Call Registry, said there were 4.5 million complaints about robocalls in 2017, more than double the 2.18 million complaints logged in 2013.
"Everywhere I go, it is what people talk about," said Florida state Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.
Florida passed a bill in March giving phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.