Americans are in debt, and the vultures are auto-dialing

Americans are now deeper in debt than at any other time in our nation’s history. Especially acute are mounting debts on past-due mortgage payments, student loans and medical bills. In fact, medical debt is one of the most often mentioned causes of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. and the situation has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

So, is it any wonder that criminal minds would turn to scams to exploit those suffering from financial woes?

“Do not hang up,” the robocall voice sternly instructs. “Your case has been referred to law enforcement for nonpayment. A warrant for your arrest is being issued.”

Millions have gotten these pre-recorded phony phone calls designed to keep the recipient on the line to see what the threat is all about. Between our home phone and cellphones, my husband and I get at least one every other day, even though we joined the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry back in 2003.

Many originate as an “autodialed call.” That is one placed by an automated outbound calling system that dials telephone numbers until it detects a connection. After you say “hello,” you hear a momentary silence as the system quickly passes the call to a live person. This technology has sophisticated internal metrics that predict the exact right time to place a call to coincide with the availability of one of their agents.

Legitimate debt collection agencies also use these outbound dialing strategies and, if you owe money, you will have to pay it back. But, whether the caller is a genuine collector or a scam artist, there are laws these callers must follow. The 2015 Telephone Consumer Protection Act declared that any debt collector instigating a call via an autodialing system was subject to strict laws governing what they could and could not do. Unfortunately, the act was struck down by the federal court in 2018 as being too far-reaching.

Today, debtors still have protection under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Debt collectors are not allowed to threaten to have you arrested, pretend to work for a government agency, try to collect a debt you don’t actually owe, or continue to harass you or publicly shame you by publishing your name. Offenders can be fined up to $500 per illegal call. If this is happening to you, note the time and number that called you, demand their company information and report them to your state attorney general’s office.

The Federal Communications Commission says it gets more consumer complaints about robocalls than anything else, and has issued hundreds of millions of dollars in fines against illegal callers. In January 2020, President Trump signed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act. This legislation sets fines of up to $10,000 per illegal call. It also requires such communications companies as Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T to put technology in place to help consumers identify spam calls using a fake number.

All these safeguards are in place, yet, on a regular basis, I still – and I’m sure you do, too – get these irritating, and sometimes frightening, phone calls. Why can’t they simply be stopped? The FTC and FCC are supposedly on the case, phone carriers pledge to help, federal legislation aims to stop the practice and state attorneys general offices say they are “on the front lines of enforcing do-not-call laws.” Really?

We are a nation of smart people, so why can’t we figure out a way to stop the harassment from unscrupulous debt collectors, criminals out to fleece Americans and all those annoying telemarketers?

This problem isn’t going away. Experts estimate that, by the end of this year, we will have endured more than 51 billion of these miserable interruptions. Imposing fines hasn’t stopped the calls, so how about imposing meaningful prison time for the worst offenders?

And while I’m no technological brain, it seems to me that these calls could not occur without access to a phone line. Shouldn’t all efforts be focused on the obvious frontline solution of how to withhold phone access to questionable characters?

At a time when Americans are struggling to recover from the financial and emotional hardships of the pandemic, the last thing they need is for this illegal, nerve-wracking and universally unwanted practice to continue. Is anyone in Washington listening?; email to


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