Mississippi Launches App to Combat Telemarketing, Scam Calls

The state’s Public Service Commission has created an app to make registering on the do-not-call list simpler for residents.

by Mary Perez, The Sun Herald / November 13, 2017
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(TNS) –– The phone rings and although the display shows it’s a local number, the caller is someone named Heather again, and you hang up before finding out what she’s selling.

Or a caller asks for Linda, and when you tell them they have the wrong number, they go on to ask you for money.

More than half of consumers responded to a survey by FirstOrion.com that they’ve had a scam call on their cell phone in the last month. The company says there are about 80 million of these unwanted calls every year.

There is a way to fight these telemarketers, said Brandon Presley, chairman of the Public Service Commission, who recently introduced members of the Gulfport Rotary Club to the new “MS No-Call” app. It’s free, downloads in less than a minute from the Apple Store for iPhone users or Google Play for Android cell phones and lets users register their phone number on the Do Not Call list.

The app is the first of its kind from any state in the country, he said.

Presley asked how many people had received a call from a telemarketer and nearly every hand in the room at Great Southern Club was raised. When asked how many had reported those calls, only a few hands went up.

He said the app makes it easy to report the phone number immediately, so there’s a better chance of cracking down on telemarketers.

“This free app was a long time coming, and I know it will revolutionize the way we track down the lawbreakers and shut their call operations down,” he said.

What’s being done

Presley, whose grandfather was a brother of Elvis Presley’s grandfather, said he was sitting on his porch in northern Mississippi when he got one of those annoying calls.

That’s when he had the idea for an app, which was paid for with fines collected by the state from the offending telemarketers and with fees from companies who are registered in the state.

He’s not stopping there, Presley said. He’s working to help draft legislation that will allow class-action suits in Mississippi against companies that allow these invasions of privacy.

While the state can issue a fine, “The person who is called is the victim,” he said.

He’s also working with a strike force to solve the problem from a technology standpoint, and said technology is being developed that will let consumers know when they pick up their phone whether a call is originating from a verified phone number.

Spoofing

The telemarketers keep changing their tactics. Now the phone number that comes up on the caller ID will display a local number, often with the same area code and prefix as the cell phone user’s.

“That is caller ID spoofing,” Presley said. “That is a technology that people are using, obviously illegally, to alter the caller ID, so it will pique the interest of the person getting called.” The consumer thinks it is a local number, he said, so they answer the call.

“Almost all of them are originating outside the United States,” he said. Some of them pop up with “United States” in the caller ID.

“I’ve had over 10 calls today,” said one person who responded on the Sun Herald Facebook page. “I don’t even live there but I have a MS number. They have even used my number to call people.”

Another said, “The other day, I got a call from my own number. Don’t know how they did that.”

Presley admits, “It’s a continual fight.”

How does it stop?

The Federal Communications Commission says “spoofing” occurs when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to a caller ID display on a person’s phone to disguise their identity.

Spoofing is often an attempt to trick a person into giving away valuable information such as social security numbers, mother’s maiden named or passwords used for fraudulent activity or sold illegally according to the FCC. The spoofers may masquerade as representatives of banks, creditors, insurance companies or the government, the agency said.

Attorney General Jim Hood said in a press release that Mississippi joined other states in 2010 to enact the Caller ID Anti-Spoofing Act to regulate caller ID spoofing. But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the scammers had a first amendment right to spoof phone numbers and upheld the legality of “non-harmful spoofing” in 2012 when it overturned the state law.

Verizon says it stops many robocalls before they get to their customers and provides information on telemarketing and robocalls on its website. “We monitor our networks to detect spikes in suspicious calls, and then work with law enforcement and with other telephone companies to shut down illegal robocallers,” the company says.

The FCC is going after the companies. In August the agency proposed an $82 million fine against Best Insurance Contracts, doing business as Wilmington Insurance Quotes, and its owner, Philip Roesel of North Carolina, who is believed to have made more than 21 million of illegally spoofed robocalls to consumers around the country. The FCC said the calls displayed inaccurate caller ID when making robocalls in an effort to sell health insurance, “which especially targeted vulnerable consumers, including the elderly, the infirm and low-income families.”

This came after the FCC in June proposed a $120 million fine against Adrian Abramovich of Miami, Florida, who the agency says apparently made 96 million spoofed robocalls over three months. These calls prompted people to “Press 1” to hear about exclusive vacation deals from well-known hotels and hospitality companies.

Consumers who did press the button were then transferred to foreign call centers, according to the FCC, where live operators attempted to sell vacation packages, often involving timeshares, which were not affiliated with the companies in the recorded message. The FCC said the fine was based on 80,000 calls it was able to verify through consumer complaints.

For more information about Mississippi’s No Call Law, visit www.psc.state.ms.us or call 1-800-637-7722.

©2017 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.