Lawmakers Consider Measures To Help Protect Mainers From Onslaught Of Robocalls

Feb 13, 2019

Robocalls from both legitimate businesses and scammers exploded across the country last year, and in Maine as well. Ninety-three million calls were made to Maine residents last year, according to data from a company that tracks and sells software to block the irksome autodial calls.

The spike is prompting some states, including Maine, to consider laws to crack down on a practice that leads the list in consumer complaints but has thus far frustrated federal regulators.

Mainers received over 11 million robocalls just last month. That’s nearly nine calls per person, according to data published by YouMail, which offers a blocking service.

Among one of the most frequent calls was from one company pitching a can’t-miss vacation opportunity.

“You have been selected for a week’s vacation to Orlando, Florida, right next to Disney,” the robocall goes. “And you will also get a three-day, two-night stay at a beach in the Bahamas, where we will also provide you with a cruise to get you to the island and back.”

For the record, there are 700 islands and islets in the Bahamas, not just one. But the cruise and steeply discounted rate pitched by the cheery voice probably aren’t the point of the call, which was posted on the YouMail website and tagged as a possible scam originating out of Cleveland, Ohio.

In fact, the location of the call isn’t a sure thing, either, because these operations can disguise their identities through a range of internet calling services. Those are the companies some state lawmakers would like to stop.

“States need to be integral partners in identifying and going after bad actors,” says Democratic state Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco, who is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit telemarketers from using robocalls by making it an unfair trade practice.

Fellow House Democrat Ryan Tipping of Orono has a similar bill that would fine companies using robocalls under the guise of something they are not — such as an Ohio entity pitching a steeply discounted vacation to the Bahamas in exchange for some personal information.

Chenette says the problem is massive, a claim backed by the fact that the Federal Communications Commission last year reported that 60 percent of its complaints last year were related to unwanted robocalls.

“I believe doing nothing is not an option for us. We must try and we must try something,” he says.

Solutions to the robocalls problem have eluded federal regulators, who face technological and geographical hurdles to track down scammers, who often operate from outside the country yet can use special services to make calls appear as if they’re coming from Ohio, or even Lewiston or Portland, in a tactic known as spoofing.

And the bad actors have intensified their efforts to defraud Americans. Just last year, unwanted robocalls jumped from over 2.5 billion to over 4 billion in the span of just six months, according to YouMail data.

Several states have passed laws that attempt to tighten restrictions on robocalls. Last year Connecticut passed a law adding criminal fines and penalties to its existing law. New York and New Jersey considered bills asking the Federal Communications Commission to require wireless and traditional telephone providers to come up with ways that allow customers to block robocalls.

The effectiveness of such steps is not yet unclear.

Republican Rep. Joel Stetkis of Canaan says the Legislature should be wary of passing laws that will make their constituents happy in the short term but may not solve the problem.

“I think we can agree that the last thing we want to do here is put another law on the books that we actually can’t do anything about,” he says.

But Chenette and Tipping say their bills could be an important first step, especially if it helps state prosecutors crackdown on calls that just last month occurred at a rate of over four per second.

Originally published 5:20 p.m. Feb. 12, 2019