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Robocalls grow and PSC looks for a better defense

By JACK WEATHERLY

Brandon Presley

Hacking invades the sanctity of the computer of a person, business or government agency.

And it grabs the headlines.

Another kind of intrusion doesn’t draw nearly the public attention but “robocalls” can invade the privacy in a different way.

And such calls are growing exponentially.

The Mississippi Do Not Call List “works wonderfully” for those who obey its provisions, said Brandon Presley, chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission.

About 140 companies and other entities have registered on the list.

“The problem we have is 90 percent of these calls are originating in a foreign country or from a robocaller,” Presley said in an interview.

“These are coming from people who are not registering with the state or with the Federal Trade Commission,” he said. The FTC earlier this year filed a complaint in federal court to attack the problem.

“Technology and the ability to make millions of calls in a short period of time have outstripped the ability of any enforcement agency, on the state level or on the federal level.”

Consumer Reports stated that in 2017 more than 30 billion robocalls were made in the country, based on an estimate from YouCall, a provider of voicemail and call-blocking services.

When unwanted solicitations started gumming up email inboxes, providers came up with spam boxes, Presley observed.

Phone service providers and smart phone makers offer apps for free or a couple of dollars that can block a “vast majority of unwanted calls,” Presley said.

Presley is in favor of making illegal telemarketing a criminal offense.

Asked about prosecuting someone who may be in a gray area, he said the offense could begin as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

He said he would endeavor to get lawmakers to introduce such a bill in the upcoming session of the Legislature in January.

Fines are proving not to be “a big enough hammer,” given the elusive nature of the illegal callers, he said.

He said the PSC has levied fines “well into the millions of dollars” over the past five years.

But “getting them to pay is a whole different ballgame.”

The threat of a jail term could be a deterrent, he added.

Cellphones were added to Mississippi’s Do-Not-Call List on July 1, 2016, and complaints grew disproportionately compared with those from landline users.

The Mississippi Telephone Solicitation Act was approved in 2003 after a protracted effort to reach an agreement was reached.

There are still a number of exemptions in the state law. “Too many,” Presley said.

They are as follows:

• An entity that does not make a major sales presentation during a call.

• An entity that does not try to complete a sale during a call.

• Realtors.

• Auto sellers.

• Insurance agents.

• Securities brokers and investment advisers.

• Charities.

• Newspaper ad and subscription callers.

• Banks and other lenders.

• Funeral homes.

Another weapon in illegal solicitations is the “spoof call,” which makes it appear on the caller identification that the caller is in the recipient’s area code, or one close to it.

The PSC and Attorney General Jim Hood produced a booklet on how to combat bogus calls. The guide can be seen on the attorney general’s website at agjimhood.com.

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About Jack Weatherly

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