We’re settling into our evening dinner routine, and the phone rings with a “blocked” or “unknown” number, commonly referred to as a “robocall.” Not only are these automated, pre-recorded calls a nuisance, they’re illegal. They can range from annoying telemarketing messages to menacing scams targeted at unwitting victims, often senior citizens.

Unfortunately, this problem is getting worse. Every day, tens of thousands of American consumers report receiving a robocall.

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection, which I chair, will hold a hearing on the solutions and strategies available to consumers to combat the scourge of robocalls, spoofing, and scams. It’s critical that we help ensure consumers understand their options when it comes to robocalls, along with reviewing the laws on the books to fight them. https://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/do-not-call-combating-robocalls-and-caller-id-spoofing/

As technology evolves, scammers have more tricks available to convince unwitting call recipients to answer the phone. Many of you might have noticed that these calls are often coming from phone numbers that look similar to ones in your town or city. Scammers are deliberately falsifying caller ID information knowing that a consumer is more likely to answer a phone call that appears to be local. This trick is known as “neighbor spoofing" and this tactic has been on the rise. Over the years, spoofing has grown into one of the key deceptive tactics behind unwanted calls and texts to both wireline and wireless phones.

Advanced technologies like spoofing and Internet-enabled phone services have made it significantly easier and cheaper to initiate robocalls from anywhere in the world. Outside of tricking consumers, it also helps scanners avoid detection and prosecution from regulators like the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission which have protections on the books.

Even though current laws and rules prohibit most forms of robocalls and spoofing, 2017 was still one of the worst years ever for this practice. According to the FTC, the number of consumer complaints about illegal robocalls spiked to 4.5 million, up from 3.4 million complaints the previous fiscal year.

For every month in the past year, robocalls made up the majority of consumer complaints about Do Not Call Registry violations. In fact, a staggering 3.2 billion robocalls were placed nationwide in March 2018 alone, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, which estimates robocall volumes each month. In Ohio’s 419 area code, 11.7 million robocalls were placed that month, roughly seven calls per person. [In Illinois's 618 and 217 area codes, 7.6 million and 7.9 million were placed in March 2018 respectively.]

As much as these calls are invasive and unwanted, they also have the potential for real financial harm. Fraud from unwanted calls amounts to about $9.5 billion annually, according to the FTC. As scammers continue to use malicious tactics to convince people to hand over their personal information or to purchase fraudulent goods and services, we need to make sure consumers have the tools to stay one step ahead.

Americans do have options and strategies at their disposal to block robocalls and to protect themselves. First, consumers can register their home or mobile phones with the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry by calling (888) 382-1222 or visiting www.donotcall.gov. Because most legitimate companies will not contact you if you are on the registry, this will reduce the number of telemarketing calls you receive.

However, this won't impact the bad actors that ignore the Do Not Call Registry. Customers should be encouraged to contact their cable, telephone, or wireless provider to see if they have ways to help block unwanted calls. Many telecommunications companies now provide residential phone service or mobile wireless service with call-blocking functionality to stop robocalls on your home and mobile phones for free or a small fee. Companies need to continue to do a better job educating their customers about these services.

Additionally, you can download a call-blocking app for your mobile phone. Apps use blacklists (databases of telephone numbers) to flag and divert unwanted calls on the mobile devices we carry with us every day.

Finally, you can access call-blocking features on your mobile phone itself. According to the FTC, these features let mobile users block specific contacts and set “Do Not Disturb” hours.

It should be noted, there is no need to engage with callers you don't know. If you believe that you have been targeted by a scam or a company ignoring the Do Not Call Registry, alert the FTC right away. While you may not get an immediate resolution, the more information the FTC has about robocalls and scammers, the more they can do to pinpoint the callers and take appropriate action.

[You can file complaints with the FTC at www.ftc.gov.]

The hearing this week will focus on the effectiveness and use of these new technologies and whether they have the potential to curtail this problem. While there will always be scammers who continue to find ways around the law, consumers have many tools at their disposal to protect themselves and their family. I believe that this technology can severely limit the ability of bad actors to scam innocent families.