Robocalls deserve to die. We’ll settle for injuries

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Not since extra-loud TV commercials have Americans and Congress stood so united against a peace-shattering electronic scourge. This time, the offender is robocalls, which take a greater toll than just annoying us.

Robocalls spawn for a simple reason: They work. There are real financial victims. The Chinese embassy scam, with messages in Mandarin, has tricked immigrants and visitors from China into handing over $40 million. Older people are susceptible to appeals purporting to be about medical issues, Social Security payments or family members in need. Some calls claim to be from the IRS; others have targeted victims of natural disasters including Hurricane Harvey.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both of Illinois, are among sponsors of legislation that would give robocall fraud victims greater recourse. Bills in the House and Senate would crank up fines on robocallers, allow more time to prosecute offenders and tighten language banning some types of calls.

Cellular service providers offer some solutions, and the Federal Trade Commission is pushing them to do more. New methods they can deploy have the potential to greatly help by authenticating calls. Apps can silence or intercept some calls. But the easy technology and rock-bottom cost of dialing for dollars gives scammers, often operating overseas, plenty of incentive to stay a step ahead of evolving defenses.

One of their latest malevolent innovations: the “one ring” scam, in which a call stops after a single ring, leaving a tantalizing mystery in the air. The calls are often repeated and come in the middle of the night, attempting to prompt worried recipients to call back to figure out who needs to reach them so urgently. Woe to the trusting person who rings back, though; that call will result in toll charges that profit the scammer.

Most people won’t fall for this, or be tempted by often obviously dubious, poorly recorded messages or stilted dialogues with fraudsters in faraway call centers. But it doesn’t take many to yield a hefty profit given the very minimal cost of robodialing these days.

Robocalls hit us where we live — literally — and worse, light up our ever-present mobile phones, making the continual interruptions all but inescapable. They trick our brains by mimicking our area code or other digits of our own phone numbers in a technique known as spoofing. And for those who land on target lists, there are just so many calls ringing through every day. It’s a volume business, and the bad guys are winning.

What can people do to silence the mobile menace? We suggest signing up for the federal Do Not Call list, seeing what protections your mobile service provider offers and investigating robocall-blocking apps. Caretakers, caution elderly or disabled people.

We’re heartened that congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are taking up the cause to protect Americans’ pocketbooks and to provide ways to punish offenders. For a long time, though, government agencies and tech companies have vowed to end fraud of various types. Bill Gates announced in 2004 that email spam would be eliminated within two years.

We’ve learned to be as suspicious of these promises as we are of recordings telling us there is urgent business to discuss about our Apple device. But we urge lawmakers, federal agencies and the telecom companies to quiet this beast.

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