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Column: I’ve had a cellphone for 25 years. Can I get rid of my landline yet?

Landlines are becoming a thing of the past.
Landlines are becoming a thing of the past.
(Chelsea Fisher / Getty Images/Flickr)

Am I the last person in America with a landline?

I don’t know what I pay for it. I don’t know who I pay either, since the charges are deducted automatically. I almost never dial out on it, but it rings 10, maybe 12 times a day, and the calls are never, ever from anyone I know.

Either it’s “This is the Social Security Administration” or “Ignoring this will be an illegal second offense“ or “Hi, I’m Suzie. This will be your final courtesy call.” Some are scams, some are telemarketers; on occasion it’s an actual person selling something or soliciting for something, but usually it’s a robocall. Donald Trump used to call regularly, but I don’t hear from him anymore.

YouMail, a private company that specializes in blocking unwanted calls, has calculated that in 2020 there were 45,866,949,500 robocalls made to U.S. households. I swear most of them came to me.

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So why haven’t I dumped the landline already? Partly because I’m lazy. And I’ve always had one. Plus my wife thinks maybe a hard-wired phone line will be our last link to safety when the Big One finally jolts us out of bed one night.

Landline use has been plummeting faster than, I don’t know, reservations at Mar-a-Lago. A decade ago, the overwhelming majority of American households had landlines. By the end of 2018, 57.1% had a cellphone but no landline, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among younger adults, aged 25 to 34, the share of households with only a cellphone was even higher: 76.5%.

(Yes, I also wondered why the CDC was counting landlines. Surely the agency has more pressing things to attend to.)

So, if everyone else is ripping out their landlines, why shouldn’t I?

One somewhat abstract argument for not doing so is that the demise of the landline is another blow to our communal culture. From the time they were unveiled by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, telephones were part of the shared space of families and communities. There were switchboard operators and party lines. Jealous husbands could listen in on their wives conversations and kids were forced to make small talk with adults who called. The nostalgic case for the communal landline was made by a writer in the Atlantic, who noted that the phrases “I’ll get it” and “It’s for you” are now headed the way of 10-cent calls in glass-enclosed phone booths.

In that sense, I guess, the end of landlines is a victory for the lonely, antisocial world of people who go through life with their headphones on.

But you know what? I don’t really care. That’s a small price to pay. Besides, my cellphone doesn’t cut out if it goes farther than 20 feet from the base.

To be clear, my motivation for cutting the cord is not technological. It is not even that I’m sick of paying for both cell service and a landline.

It’s the endless barrage of scams, robocalls and telemarketers.

Those calls also come to my mobile phone, but for whatever reason — and I’m sure it won’t last — I get many more on the landline. Besides, why should I get spam calls on two different phone lines?

Unwanted phone calls are a scourge. They’re the top consumer complaint at the Federal Communications Commission. Over at the Federal Trade Commission, the “Do Not Call” complaint database logged nearly 4 million complaints in fiscal year 2020. Frankly, I’m at the point where I get angry every time my landline rings even before I look to see who’s calling.

Of the billions of robocalls made last year to U.S. households, YouMail estimates that 40% are scams and 21% are telemarketers.

Telephone scams may seem so obviously fraudulent that it’s hard to imagine people falling for them. But they do. Consumers reported losing $667 million to scammers in 2019, according to FTC figures, mostly to people who pretended to be calling from the government or a well-known business, or who were posing as a family member with an emergency. Many scammers used gimmicks like “spoofing,” in which they manipulate their caller IDs to make it appear that a call is coming from a familiar, trustworthy local phone exchange.

The FTC says new technology is “making illegal robocall campaigns more deceptive, more disruptive and harder to stop.” Hundreds of billions of internet calls can now be made rapidly, at a tiny cost. Many of the scam calls originate overseas.

There are lots of suggestions for addressing the issue: stricter enforcement of Do Not Call registry violations, more effective caller ID, expanded call blocking, more tracing of fraudulent calls, stronger warnings to consumers to never give out personal information to strangers.

But my short-term solution is this: I’m going to convince my wife to cancel our landline. If Donald Trump or the IRS or Suzie with the cheery voice need to reach me, they can try me on my cell. I won’t pick up.

@Nick_Goldberg


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