Editorial: Robocalls need attention
Oct 2, 2018
The state failed for two years to vigorously enforce the "Do Not Call" law.
As the problem of predatory telemarketers and scammers grows exponentially, New York can't skimp on consumer protection.
You can report those annoying telemarketer calls that pester you even when your number is on the "Do Not Call" registry. Just don't expect New York to do anything about it.
In 2016 and 2017, when New Yorkers filed more than 800,000 complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, New York's Division of Consumer Protection referred only two cases for enforcement action, according to an audit by the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
The state's "Do Not Call" law offers residents the option to register their home and cellphone numbers on a national registry that telemarketers are required by law to honor. More than 14 million New York phone numbers are on the registry.
State auditors found a drastic drop in enforcement in New York at a time when complaints more than doubled. In 2014, when 217,031 violations were reported, the state consumer unit referred 15 cases for legal action, which recovered $1.9 million in fines. Clearly, the revenue is enough to pay for a robust enforcement effort. Yet by 2017, only one additional case was pursued in court, yielding just $44,000 in fines.
This near-abandonment of enforcement was attributed to prolonged staffing issues at the division. New York's Department of State, which includes the Division of Consumer Protection, says that by the time the audit was made public, it had already addressed the situation.
We'll see. The nearly two-year drop in enforcement was inexcusable. It was a betrayal of the faith of millions of people who hoped for relief from the calls that often subject them to hard-sell pitches and sometimes scams. Failure to enforce the law is like having no law at all. Potential seven-figure fines are a powerful incentive for telemarketers to play by the rules only if a real threat of enforcement exists.
In fairness, new technologies have made it easier for dishonest telemarketers to target consumers and escape enforcement by using "robocalls" that originate from computers located offshore. Software can dial numbers in sequence, even those listed on a Do Not Call registry. That's a major reason why such calls have skyrocketed in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue. YouMail, a California-based software firm that monitors such phone traffic, found that in February alone, more than 2.7 billion robocalls were made to U.S. consumers. It's also easy to disguise the real source of the calls.
The solution is rigid enforcement, and enlisting phone carriers to share responsibility for protecting consumers. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed legislation to require major phone companies to make robocall-blocking technology available to all customers. Such a bill should easily win bipartisan support, and passage would strike a major blow against those who prey on everyone who has a phone.
But again, the state holds the ultimate responsibility for enforcing the law. New York can't just let the phone ring and expect the problem to go away.