Business

Hiawatha Bray | TECH LAB

In Trump era, you may need to beef up your robocall defenses

Young man holding smarthphone in hand while typing
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Can an electronic nuisance get better and worse at the same time? We might find out over the next couple of years, as telephone companies, federal regulators, bankers, and bandits squabble over that modern scourge: the robocall.

Those computer-generated phone calls that now interrupt dinner might soon interrupt lunch, as well. Financial services companies hate the tight federal restrictions on placing robocalls to cellphones, so they’re begging for relief. The deregulation-minded Trump administration might go along.

But people who use smartphones or Internet-based phones can get anti-robocalling software that shuts down the most abusive offenders. In addition, the nation’s telecom companies are working on robocall blockers that would even function on old-school analog phone lines. Perhaps in a few years, the worst of the robocall plague will be behind us.

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We’ll never be entirely free of robocalls. They’re often legal, particularly when aimed at landline phones. Politicians, pollsters, and debt collectors can pump out automated calls to these phones, because they’re exempt from the federal Do Not Call list that is supposed to block telemarketing calls.

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The rules on cellphone robocalls are tougher, because millions of consumers pay by the minute for incoming calls. Nearly all robocalls to cellphones are forbidden unless the recipient has given permission. There are a few exceptions, including emergency calls from public safety agencies and calls related to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the US government, mostly delinquent student loans.

Bank of America, Chase Bank, Discover Card, and others have paid millions to settle complaints they violated the limits on robocalls. Now, financial industry groups are hoping the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, will ease up. Banks say they want to phone customers with account information, without needing advance permission. Student loan collectors, now limited to three calls to a cellphone per month, want to be able to pester deadbeats more frequently.

On Wednesday, consumer groups urged Pai to stand pat. While Pai is an avid deregulator, he’s also called robocalls “awful” and “intrusive.” Which way will he jump? We’ve got at least four years to find out.

Even with current regulations, robocalls are a scourge; last year alone they generated five million complaints to the Federal Trade Commission. The most recent spate involves calls that begin with a realistic human voice asking “can you hear me?” If you reply “yes,” you get a sales pitch for a luxury cruise or some other costly item.

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But saying “yes” is a big mistake, according to the FTC. Just speaking into the phone confirms to the crooks that there’s a human at the other end. They save such numbers for future mischief. And if you say “yes,” a recording of your voice might be used to claim that you agreed to buy something from them.

An FTC spokesman told me the agency has received hundreds of complaints about the scam, though he didn’t know of any financial losses from it.

Jody Thomas, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland, said she’d heard from a woman who was hit with $1,600 in phony credit card charges within hours of responding to a “can you hear me?” call. Luckily, her bank’s fraud alert system saved the day.

What to do? Check caller ID. If you don’t recognize an incoming number, or if the number’s blocked, let it go to voice mail. If it’s important and legitimate, the caller will leave a message.

But why let the phone ring at all? Smartphone apps can easily shut out most illicit robocalls. I use Hiya, a free app with a blacklist of known spam numbers. AT&T Corp. offers a version of Hiya called AT&T Call Protect to its smartphone customers at no charge.

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Similar apps didn’t work on the iPhone until a few months ago, when Apple updated its iOS software. Today, iPhone fans can get Hiya, AT&T Call Protect, and several similar programs. Nomorobo, one of the best-known blockers, offers an iPhone version that costs $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year. The company has a free version for Internet-based landline phones, such as those from broadband providers Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.

The last frontier for robocallers involves the analog phone lines used by a dwindling number of Americans. It’s much harder to design blocking technology for them. But last year the FCC, with Pai’s support, urged the major phone companies to find ways to filter out robocalls in the same way that Google blocks spam e-mails. A task force led by AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson is on the case and expects to start testing a system by the fourth quarter of 2017.

I see the makings of a compromise here. Let Trump’s FCC deregulate robocalls, but only after the phone companies offer a universal blocking system. Then bankers, pollsters, and scammers alike can dial my number anytime. They’ll all get the same response: silence.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.