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Sunday, November 18, 2018 1:00 am

Do-not-call frustration growing

Scammers outwit law; legislators see no easy answer

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

Also

• To register for the Indiana Do Not Call List, go to www.indonotcall.org/registrations/new

• To file a complaint call 888-834-9969 or go to www.in.gov/attorneygeneral/2433.htm

INDIANAPOLIS – Thousands of complaints from Hoosiers reporting illegal and unwanted telephone calls flood into the Indiana Attorney General's Office every year.

Now Hoosiers are also calling the state's consumer hotline to complain that the state's telemarketing law isn't working.

“Usually we just try to explain what the law is and what our authority is,” Director and Chief Counsel of Consumer Protection Betsy DeNardi said. “If they have other concerns we tell them to raise it with the Legislature.”

Lawmakers have an issue on their hands. As telemarketers – and scammers – get more technologically sophisticated, is it time to overhaul the law or just cut the state's losses?

“I think it's come to a point that we need to invest more – to specialize in this ever-changing digital world we live in,” said Rep. Jeff Ellington, R-Bloomington. “I don't think it's wasted money or time. Because it's an intrusion on residential homes and businesses alike.”

He is preparing a bill for the 2019 session and said Hoosiers shouldn't just accept nuisance calls. A major feature will be increasing fine amounts that could lead to quicker settlements. 

“I'm just fed up and hopefully we can accomplish something,” Ellington said.

Indiana has 2.1 million phone numbers on its Do Not Call list, which is stricter than the federal list. When it went into effect in 2002, Hoosiers were stunned by its immediate effectiveness. But that's gone now.

Indianapolis mom and marketing specialist Lisa Sirkin Vielee expressed frustration in a Thursday social media post, saying she received 14 robocalls in four hours. Some of the topics included health insurance, a Google business account and an educational grant. Robocalls are automated and begin with an automated message before moving to a live operator. They are illegal in Indiana. 

“I've started to offer career coaching,” she said, which causes the callers to hang up.

Rep. Ryan Hatfield, D-Evansville, said some people testified at a recent legislative hearing that the law is still working, which he found suspect.

“It's doesn't appear to me that Indiana's current efforts are working or that they are enough. I would favor a complete overhaul of the system,” he said. “I find it unacceptable that we throw up our hands and say we can do nothing.”

Former Sen. David Long authored the original law, which took several years to get through the legislature. It allows Hoosiers to register their phone number on the telemarketing do-not-call list though there are some exceptions for charities, political calls and businesses with which you already have a relationship.

Long said it was initially tough because legitimate businesses wanted to still be able to function and seek new customers.

“We came up with a solution that was fair and reasoned,” he said. “It's very possible that the whole concept needs a review. I get calls constantly.”

He said technology has caught up and created some potential loopholes. One of the biggest is the use of technology to “spoof” any number so that it looks like the call is coming from a local area, for instance.

DeNardi said a few things are hampering the law. First, the office doesn't have authority over calls placed from outside the United States. That means a large block of calls are untouchable. But the biggest issue is that many of the calls aren't coming from legitimate telemarketers. They come from scammers looking to steal money or information for identity theft.

“They don't care,” DeNardi said.

She also notes the office is still responding to all those complaints – even the ones they don't have authority over.

For instance, in 2017 more than 13,000 complaints were filed. About 100 were found exempt; more than 2,000 had inadequate information in the complaint and another 2,800 had insufficient evidence to prove; 269 weren't sales calls.

Some did move forward though – thousands of telemarketers received letters of violation, hundreds of warnings were issued, 35 were settled and others had litigation filed.

That same year the state took in $2.5 million in settlement dollars. This year that number spiked to $11.5 million because a challenge on the constitutionality of robocalls was decided in the state's favor and a glut of settlements on hold went through.

The Attorney General's Office didn't have a cost estimate for the division that handles telephone privacy. The Journal Gazette asked for the salaries of the unit's 10 employees but was told after deadline that a formal open records request would have to be made. Three of the employees work solely on telephone issues while the others also have identity theft duties.

Attorney General Curtis Hill definitely isn't ready to give up.

“Hoosiers have made quite clear the fact that they strongly support state laws that protect them against nuisance callers. We should continue investing in these measures and improving them wherever possible,” he said.

“I especially want to continue working with federal authorities to combat nuisance calls coming from overseas and to counter the cutting-edge technologies used by nuisance callers to avoid being identified and penalized.”

An interim legislative committee heard testimony on the topic but failed to provide any findings or recommendations.

nkelly@jg.net