More help is needed to stop robocalls, including ones from EBay and PayPal

Lawmakers and regulators are trying to crack down on robocallers. So should phone companies @DavidLaz says

If you're being driven crazy by robocalls, help may be on the way.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has introduced legislation to strengthen the Federal Communication Commission's ability to crack down on what's become a high-tech pain in the tuchis.

"These calls can be annoying or frustrating to many of us, but they can be much more devastating to those, especially seniors, who fall victim to them," McCaskill said.

Her bill would give the FCC more enforcement authority, allowing it to slap harsher penalties on robocallers.

It also would extend the agency's reach in cracking down on so-called spoofers — robocallers that hide their identity from caller ID systems or appear as a call you'd want to take, such as from your local police department or a nearby hospital.

For its part, the FCC is trying to get phone companies more involved. It announced last week that telecom firms "face no legal barriers" in adopting technologies aimed at filtering robocalls.

The need for help from on high was underlined by EBay and PayPal, both of which recently announced that they were modifying their terms of service to allow "auto-dialed or prerecorded calls or text messages" to contact users.

That's exactly what it sounds like. EBay and PayPal, which are now in the process of splitting apart, are reserving the right to robocall you. They say they might do this to collect debts, offer promotions or ask survey questions.

EBay's contract change took effect last week. PayPal's will kick in July 1.

This is messed up on a number of levels, not least that these guys should know better. Consumers have made it clear, loudly, that they don't like being bothered in this manner.

The FCC says it received more than 215,000 complaints about robocalls last year.

New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman contacted EBay and PayPal seeking more information about their intentions.

"Consumer choice and privacy preferences are protected by state and federal laws — including laws that specifically aim to stop companies from using invasive robocalls to promote products to consumers who do not wish to receive them," said Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for Schneiderman.

"The attorney general's office will seek to stop unlawful breaches of privacy and enforce the rules that protect consumers," she said.

Unfortunately, robocalls fall into a gray area of the law. At least when spoofing is involved.

Federal law forbids using telecommunications equipment "to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value."

That would seem to rule out all spoofing. The problem for consumers is that courts have ruled that "non-harmful" spoofing is OK.

For example, a shelter for domestic-abuse victims might want to mask its phone number, or a psychologist might want to withhold her home number from a potentially dangerous patient.

Some telemarketers have argued that since their intent is merely to contact someone, not defraud them, their spoofing is similarly non-harmful.

McCaskill said nearly all legitimate telemarketers honor the federal do-not-call list. She said many robocalls these days are from overseas scammers who intend to cause harm by cheating you out of money.

Her bill would expand the scope of current spoofing rules to apply to anyone outside the country who targets a U.S. resident. It also would increase the penalty for robocall violations to $25,000 from $16,000 per call.

"Any solution to this problem has to involve increased penalties and prosecutions for violators, along with having phone companies finally offer robocall blocking services that their customers clearly want," McCaskill said.

Just because U.S. regulators would have the authority to go after overseas scammers, that obviously doesn't mean teams of commandos would be raiding the offices of spoofers worldwide.

At best, it potentially would give American officials a piece of the action if a foreign government cracked down on a spoofing operation, which seldom happens in places where the practice is common.

What EBay and PayPal are doing is more troublesome. These aren't overseas scammers. They're a couple of the best-known companies in Silicon Valley.

Nor are they trying to defraud anyone or cause harm, though interrupting people's dinners with robocalls might be deemed harmful by some.

Mike Wagner, a PayPal spokesman, said the company strives "to be as clear as possible with our customers" and that anyone who doesn't want to be bothered "can choose not to receive auto-dialed or prerecorded message calls."

However, there's nothing in the revised terms of service that says you can opt out of robocalls. To learn this, you'd have to read a PayPal blog post that instructs you to contact customer support.

No one at EBay returned my calls and emails.

It seems clear that robocalls can't be cut off at the source. The best bet for consumers is to intercept them before they reach people's homes, just as the most effective way of addressing email spam is for Internet service providers to block unwanted messages before they reach subscribers.

Lawmakers and regulators are in agreement: More needs to be done to stop robocalls. They're doing what they can. It's now up to phone companies to do their share in protecting customers.

I asked AT&T and Verizon about their plans. Both companies declined to comment.

David Lazarus' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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