Your heart races as your cellphone on the bedside table comes alive and wakes you in the middle of the night. Through blurry eyes, you see the number flash across your screen and recognize it instantly — the cancer center where your loved one is being treated. Your anxiety rises as you answer the phone.
Only it’s a fraud. A scam robocall has been able to make it appear that the number of origin is the hospital’s, and to try to use the fear and urgency of the situation to pry sensitive personal and financial information from the unwitting person who receives the call.
The universal nature of this problem and the dangers it poses to public health and patient privacy have made this an issue that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
Frustrated Americans are victimized daily by a wide range of scam robocalls, with this example only one of many that demonstrate why the phenomenon of call-spoofing is so harmful. And it’s not only patients and relatives who receive these fake hospital calls: The hospitals themselves do as well.
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Of some 15 billion robocalls that were placed from February to April of this year (there were an estimated 47.8 billion in 2018), Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa — one of the busiest cancer hospitals in the United States — received 6,600 illegal robocalls. The calls mimicked internal Moffitt phone numbers and consumed 65 hours of hospital response time. Another 300 robocalls to Moffitt during that time appeared to be coming from the Department of Justice in Washington, with scammers on the other line demanding information on physicians likely to be used to illicitly purchasing painkillers.
This has to stop. And on Capitol Hill, we believe we’ve found a way to do that. The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act would force phone companies to make sure that caller ID information has been authenticated before anyone’s cellphone ever rings.
The universal nature of this problem and the dangers it poses to public health and patient privacy have made this an issue that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. In a rare moment of unity, the House joined together in a sweeping 429-3 vote last Wednesday to pass the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, after it passed 48-0 out of the Energy and Commerce Committee the week before.
We have a shared commitment with leaders in the Senate to stop abusive robocall practices and are confident that we will soon deliver a bill to the president.
After years of complaints from consumers, and recent efforts by the Federal Communications Commission encouraging phone companies to voluntarily take some of the actions outlined in this bill, the legislation gives teeth to enforcement against robocall scams.
While laws against such fraudulent calls have been on the books for years, most of them rely on being able to trace the calls, which recent innovations have allowed bad actors to evade. Under the new law, all phone companies will have to use technologies like the STIR and SHAKEN protocol to authenticate a call before it ever reaches a cellphone, so consumers will know whether a call is really coming from where the caller ID says it is. The bill also allows the blocking of robocalls in a reasonable manner.
Both services are mandated to be offered without an extra charge for consumers. The Federal Communications Commission, which will implement this requirement, will also expand its enforcement authority by having more time – up to four years – to catch illegal callers as well as the ability to fine first-time offenders. The expanded statute of limitations is important given the length of time it can take for the FCC’s process to work. The legislation also includes other provisions specifically designed to shield the health care system’s infrastructure.
Regulators and the industry need even better tools to guard every American, and once again, that means Congress must act. Illegal robocalls to health care institutions and patients present a persistent danger to public health and patient privacy. The FCC needs to go after the criminals responsible for these calls with the seriousness and urgency this issue deserves.