What’s the hangup? Texas Legislature, Congress must curtail maddening robocalls

It’s not in the Constitution per se, but it certainly is insinuated: The right to be left alone is something of a cherished American birthright.

If only our Founders could’ve foreseen our 21st-century ability to hound each other on little devices in our pockets and pocketbooks. If only the Fourth Amendment’s declaration of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” had included “intrusions by robocallers.”

Alas, since the rampant abuse of an otherwise invaluable technology could not possibly have been foreseen, we’ve got to fix the problem ourselves.

The advent of caller ID was a godsend that nearly eliminated prank and harassing phone calls. But while telemarketing has been an essential and legitimate tool of commerce for decades, some telemarketers have thoroughly abused access to our phones, most annoyingly and troublingly through automated robocalls — which makes it effortless for them to bother us endlessly.

More recently, the less scrupulous and their feral kin, the impenitent scammer, have made life utterly miserable for phone users, despite long-ago promises of a sacrosanct Do Not Call List. As one writer put it, “today the Do Not Call list is about as effective as a free cruise offered over the phone is free.”

What happened? As with many laws, the Do Not Call List has been obeyed by law-abiding companies, yet blissfully ignored by the underbelly of telemarketing tricksters. Voice over Internet Protocol technology, another legitimate technology using the internet to transmit phone calls, has also been abused, particularly by offshore hustlers.

In addition, call “spoofing” is a way for the disreputable to fake a caller ID to make it appear as if you’re being phoned from someone in your area code or state. Indeed, we recently received a call that purported to be from a Houston number. The recorded message was in what appeared to be Chinese.

It’s time to stop this outrage. No one has an unfettered right to call you day and night, and certainly not shady characters operating offshore.

While observing constraints of the First Amendment, and protecting the business interests of our friends in the upright portion of the telemarketing community, state and national officials must do everything possible to block these predatory invasions of our privacy.

Federal law already requires telemarketers to transmit an actual, identifying phone number if not a name. But the Texas House Thursday approved and sent to the Senate HB 1992, which grants the state express authority to prosecute purveyors of fraudulent caller ID information.

As bill sponsor Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, notes, even if you block scammers’ numbers they can and do come right back at you with a new phone number that might be one digit different from the old one.

Does this kind of badgering ever work? Apparently. And think about it: If their robocalling targets the phones of 99 savvy consumers but reels in one vulnerable one, they’ve lost little in the effort and hooked a potential victim of fraud.

Mercifully Congress, too, is taking steps to, as NBC News put it, “ramp up penalties for violations, put the onus on major cell service providers to do a better job of authenticating calls, and offer ways to block neighborhood ‘spoofers’...”

Does it seem it’s gotten a lot worse lately? It has. One estimate says robocalls increased nearly 50 percent from 2017 to 2018.

What’s the hangup? Let’s get this done.