Nebraska lawmakers to consider crackdown on robocalls, fake numbers

Nebraska lawmakers to consider crackdown on robocalls, fake numbers
The Nebraska Legislature's George W. Norris Legislative Chamber. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN (AP) — Scam artists who use local phone numbers to trick consumers into answering their calls could soon have a tougher time operating in Nebraska, if one state senator has his way.

The new proposal in the State Legislature would add Nebraska to the growing number of states trying to clamp down on “neighborhood spoofing,” the practice of making distant calls appear as local numbers on caller IDs.

“Nebraskans are tired of receiving these calls,” said Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings. “It’s not respectful of people’s privacy. They don’t expect to be misled when they see a call coming in.”

Halloran introduced a bill last week that would ban callers from sending bogus caller ID information to phones “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” Violators would go before the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which could impose a fine as large as $2,000 for each offense.

It appears to be a popular idea: Nearly one-third of the Legislature has signed on as a co-sponsor.

Halloran acknowledged the measure could raise costs for the telecommunications industry, which might get passed down to consumers, but said he still believe it’s a worthwhile idea. He said he deals with such calls constantly on his cellphone from numbers that appear to be from constituents.

A Nebraska Public Service Commission spokeswoman said agency officials have not yet reviewed the bill.

Industry officials said they fervently agree that phone spoofing is a growing problem they hope to address, but they aren’t sure a Nebraska state law would be effective.

“There’s nothing more infuriating than when you pick up a phone call expecting it to be somebody, and it’s somebody else,” said Eric Carstenson, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association. “But it’s a federal and international problem. It’s not a problem we think we can fix with Nebraska statutes.”

Carstenson noted that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has identified phone spoofing as his top consumer protection priority. Unwanted calls are by far the most common complaints the FCC receives, with more than 200,000 reported each year, according to the agency.

Nebraska state officials don’t track the number of complaints they receive, but phone spoofing has become far more common in recent years as technology advances, said Meghan Stoppel, chief of the Nebraska attorney general’s consumer protection division.

Stoppel said spoofing is commonly used in scams where callers pretend to be law enforcement officers or a tax auditor from the Internal Revenue Service. Both schemes are designed to pressure people into sending money quickly, and Stoppel said a variety of Nebraskans — from college students to the elderly — have fallen for them.

“It’s definitely a growing concern for us,” she said. “People can no longer trust the digits that are being displayed on their caller ID.”

At the same time, Stoppel said it’s important for governments not to block spoofing that serves a legitimate purpose. For example, she said companies frequently use spoofing so that calls appear to come from their main lines instead of an employee’s specific extension.

South Carolina passed an anti-spoofing law in 2018, and Kansas lawmakers will consider legislation this year. Florida and Mississippi have passed laws, but they were struck down amid industry lawsuits arguing that they regulated commerce outside the state’s borders, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.

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