Bipartisan agreement at Capitol: Enough with the robocalls

A call log is displayed via an AT&T app.
A call log is displayed via an AT&T app on a cellphone in August 2017. Minnesota legislators in both parties hope to crack down on spam and spoof calls, but the telecommunications industry warns it’s easier said than done.
John Raoux | AP 2017

Robocall relief is on the agenda at the Minnesota Capitol this year.

Bills to target those unwanted phone calls have been filed in the House and Senate by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, tackling a growing nuisance that in some cases leads to consumer fraud.

First-term DFL Rep. Zack Stephenson said when he discussed attempting to stymie ill-intentioned robocalls at two recent town halls, it was a clear hit.

“I would certainly hope that if there’s anything that can unite us here at the Capitol, it’s a hatred of robocalls,” said Stephenson, of Coon Rapids.

First-term GOP Sen. Rich Draheim hears it from frustrated constituents, too.

“You’re almost afraid to answer the phone anymore. And I think anything we can do to help reverse that is a positive step,” Draheim, of Madison Lake, said. “I think it’s a bipartisan issue. I’m happy to work with anyone who has similar views.”

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Both lawmakers have introduced bills to lash back at the illicit callers, either through increased penalties or by forcing carriers to cut the calls off before they reach your phone.

Stephenson describes his bill as “the toughest robocall ban bill in the country” because of what it demands of the telecommunications industry.

Rep. Zach Stephenson
Rep. Zach Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, is proposing to crack down on robocalls.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

“It requires all of the telecommunications companies in Minnesota to implement the latest and greatest anti-robocall technology at no additional cost to the consumer,” he said.

He argues there has been an explosion of fraud occurring by robocall, including callers posing as Xcel Energy employees telling people their power will be cut if they don’t pay in cash immediately. Sometimes the scam calls originate in another country but are made to look local on caller ID.

"There's not a legitimate reason for someone in the Ukraine to be pretending to be in Fridley and calling you,” he said. “We should just shut those calls off from the beginning and then we won't have nearly as many of these fraudulent calls."

Draheim said the faraway origin certainly adds to the enforcement challenge.

“Most of the calls are coming from overseas but that doesn’t mean here in Minnesota we can’t do more to try to limit the number of robocalls,” he said. “So if we increase the penalty for anyone we do catch doing it in Minnesota, that’ll help.”

His bill would give the attorney general more power to go after those behind illegal calls and seek penalties of up to $100,000.

Stephenson’s bill is tentatively set for its first hearing next week. Nothing has been scheduled yet for Draheim’s Senate version.

Minnesota law already limits the types of calls that can be placed without a live operator introducing them. The restrictions don’t apply to schools and other entities if someone has a prior relationship.

Brent Christensen, the president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, said the latest state legislation is premature given that new federal regulations have yet to fully kick in. He said telecom providers already do some call screening to identify suspected fraudulent or spam calls with some being blocked altogether. But that filtering has its limits.

“We have to be really careful that we don’t not send the right call through,” Christensen said.

Christensen’s members are 44 independent telephone companies around the state, who mostly deal in landlines. To a degree, they’re at the mercy of other providers up the network who sort the calls first.

Christensen concedes that public sentiment is with the other side.

“On the surface, it’s easy to say we don’t like robocalls. But there are also good robocalls: School districts notifying of late starts and the red alerts that counties put out for storm warnings and things like that,” he said.