Anti-spoofing laws are popular; likely ineffective

Monday, January 28, 2019

It happens at least once a day, usually twice or more.

Your cell phone rings and the caller ID indicates a number with a prefix something like yours. It might even be a number that belongs to one of the friends on your contact list.

But it’s not her; it’s someone talking about your credit care account, your car warranty or a student loan. Funny, your car has been out of warranty for 10 years and you never went to college.

It’s gotten so bad that many of us answer our phones only when it’s absolutely necessary. How many of your friends as you to please text, rather can calling. “Spoofing” telemarketers are probably the cause.

Robocalls and fake numbers are so unpopular that nearly a third of the Nebraska Unicameral has signed on to co-sponsor Sen. Steve Halloran’s bill to ban callers from sending bogus caller ID information to phones “with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”

Get caught doing the above, and the Nebraska Public Service Commission could fine you as much as $2,000 for each call.

The legislation is popular but probably wouldn’t do much to stop the most common calls, which are more annoying than outright criminal.

It’s even possible to be sympathetic with a “live” caller, when you encounter one, knowing that they’re just trying to support themselves and their family with whatever work they can find.

Telemarketing has been an important industry in Nebraska for decades, and lawmakers are unlikely to take steps that could lead to its demise.

It’s a federal and international problem, says Eric Carstenson, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association. “It’s not a problem we can fix with Nebraska statutes.”

To be sure, some spoofing definitely needs to be outlawed, such as scams where callers pose as law enforcement officers, IRS tax auditors, Medicare officials or other outright criminal activity.

And there are even legitimate uses for spoofing, such as making a call appear to be coming from a business’ main switchboard rather than an employee’s personal phone.

Cheap spoofing technologies have made it easy to sidestep the federal “do not call” list, to the point that it’s completely ineffective, even when the government is on the job. And, robocalls are difficult to stop when companies are willing to risk breaking federal law.

Smartphone apps are available to stop robocalls, and some wireless providers offer services to prevent such calls. There again, spoofers and company programmers are playing a cat-and-mouse game.

Florida and Mississippi passed anti-spoofing laws, but they were struck down when challenged as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause.

Halloran’s legislation is possible and may even be passed, but don’t expect those annoying calls to stop any time soon.

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