Let’s find something fun to talk about.
Really, we need a little break. The top topics for civic discussion right now are the pandemic, climate change and collapsing infrastructure. It’s summer, but baseball games keep getting postponed when somebody tests positive for the coronavirus. Broadway is all but closed. There’s nothing much on TV except the Olympics, and the Olympics are kind of depressing.
So let’s complain about … robocalls!
Among the nonlethal problems currently facing the nation, robocalling looms large just for raw irritation. Really large. According to the call-blocking company YouMail, Americans got about 4.4 billion robocalls in June — seriously. This is up from a mere four billion in May.
The government has been trying to rein in robocalling, one way or another, since the 1990s. But with little success. Any chance you remember the birth of the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003? Ten million people signed up in the first few days.
We felt like such an in-crowd. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission found enforcement impossible, and being a Do Not Caller seemed like it made no practical difference whatsoever. Still, maybe we could all get together in a couple of years for our 20th reunion.
Plus Congress had passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which limited the use of automatic dialing systems, prerecorded messages and all the things you’ve come to hate in an unsolicited phone call.
But this spring — in a decision one critic claimed “reads like a brief from a telemarketers’ trade association” — the Supreme Court decided the act didn’t really hold up. The decision was, unsurprisingly, pretty complicated. But the bottom line was that nobody needs your permission to put your phone number on an automatic dialer.
“They used grammatical gymnastics to create an opening for Americans to be bombarded with unwanted calls on their cellphones,” complained Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts in a phone interview. Markey, who’s one of Congress’s anti-robocall crusaders, expects to come up with a bipartisan bill to undo what the court has done. Even in an era when Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on whether to hold a hearing about the assault on the nation’s Capitol, they’re pretty much in accord on robocall reform.
“There are no red robocalls or blue robocalls,” Markey intoned. “Only obnoxious robocalls.”
The industry’s ability to work around barriers would be inspiring if it weren’t … about calling everyone. I’ve been on the Do Not Call list for ages, and while I’ve been typing this paragraph I got two phone calls. One was from “Dave,” who wanted me to show my support for our veterans by giving him a commitment for a modest check combined with the sharing of my personal information.
The other was a recorded message urging me to “press 1” if I’d ever gotten sick from taking Xanax.
(You know that you should never press 1, right, people? Never pressing any number during a telephone pitch is a generational law similar to the one your parents or grandparents had about not inviting door-to-door salesmen to come into the house.)
The robocalls are just part of a vast web of workers trying to sell you stuff over the phone. There are, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 117,000 Americans who do that kind of work for a living, at an average wage of just under $15 an hour.
And a darned efficient operation it is.
It included an estimated 45.9 billion robocalls in 2020. That’s about 1,455 a second. In the time it takes you to blink, 1,455 people are going to be robo-ed.
Some calls, of course, aren’t about selling you anything. The virtuous side of robo-communicating is stuff you really want to hear. (School’s canceled due to snow!)
But most telemarketing calls are more along the line of another of today’s callers to my house — “Michael at Allstate,” who wanted me to know that “our rates have been dropping recently.”
No idea what the details on those rates were. It was pretty clear if I had inquired, Michael would have asked me to press 1 for further information.
But I did take a few minutes to draw my caller out a bit. Michael said he was from Pakistan. “It’s a good job. It’s a very easy job. It’s a high-pay job,” he insisted, although further probing on exactly how much he was being paid elicited, “I don’t know.”
So the beat goes on, folks. But there’s hope for the future. Markey’s working on his bill. And as of June 30, the major phone companies were supposed to start using a technology called Stir/Shaken to make it harder to trick you into believing a call from Pakistan is actually coming from, say, a neighbor with the same area code.
We will stop right here to note that “Stir” stands for “secure telephone identity revisited” and “Shaken” is “signature-based handling of asserted information using tokens.”
How can anything with a name like that fail to succeed?