My fellow Americans, we live in a divided time. But there is one thing we all agree on.
We absolutely hate telemarketers.
It's only getting worse. By next month, nearly half of all incoming cell-phone calls will be spam. Half! Sure, the government cracks down on a few of the worst offenders. But they're fighting with a hand tied behind their back. Now, a small group of lawmakers wants to change that.
So here's the problem, the reason why it hasn't been fixed before -- and why a laughably simple legal trick could very likely be the solution.
Surprise: it's totally legal!
The scenario has to do with spoofed Caller ID. You're at home, or at work, or wherever, and you're suddenly interrupted by a call you don't recognize. Only... it's from the same area code and exchange as your cell phone.
As an example, my phone number is (424) 245-5687. I might get a call from say, (424) 245-9999.
Now, the call isn't really originating from that number -- or likely from any real traceable number. It's just set up that way to make it look like a local call, so I might be more likely to answer.
You might assume that doing this would be illegal. I mean, I'm a lawyer (not practicing, but still), and I was pretty sure people had been prosecuted for wire fraud for doing less.
But it turns out that's not the case at all. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission says it's only illegal to make this kind of spoofed Caller ID call if you do so "with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value."
No provable bad faith or fraud? No problem, under the current law.
Welcome to Kentucky
It's in this context that an unlikely savior might come to the rescue.
Meet Kevin Bratcher, a state legislator in Kentucky who introduced a bill to make it illegal to spoof a Caller ID for almost any reason at all.
It wouldn't matter if you could later prove that, for example, "technically if the person jumped through all these hoops and paid these upfront fees they could get a free trip to the Bahamas."
Simply "causing misleading information to be transmitted to users of caller identification technologies, or to otherwise misrepresent the origin of the telephone solicitation," would result in a very significant fine: $500 for a first offense, and $3,000 for each subsequent offense.
There would be few minor exceptions for things: things like if the recipient knew his or her true phone number or location, or friends playing an innocuous prank on one another.
But beyond that, it would be a strict law.
"I came up with this because I just had a campaign, and everywhere I went people were asking me, 'Why can't you do something about all these calls with fake IDs?'" Bratcher, a Republican who has been in office for 22 years, told me recently. "And I was receiving them too. Just a light bulb went off on my head: Why is anyone trying to give you a call with a fake ID? That needs to stop.:
A big part of the problem
I realized something after Bratcher and I talked: it's not just the scammers who have latched onto this spoofing strategy.
For example, Bratcher didn'told me about receiving spoofed Caller ID phone calls from a 501(c)(3) he supports, and that's based in Washington, D.C. The calls looked like they were coming from Kentucky.
That's also what he says to those who might suggest that anyone sophisticated enough to spoof a Caller ID might also be sophisticated enough not to get caught. For a big part of these calls -- maybe even a majority -- the fraud stops with the spoofed number.
Legitimate charities aren't going to want to be tarred with this brush.
Why can't the government work for us?
For now, if the law were only changed like this in one state, it would be a complicated and potentially expensive strategy for legitimate charities to risk fines and bad press for spoofing IDs in Kentucky.
But while the initial news coverage of Bratcher's bill suggested it might be the first attempt like this in the country, I've talked with Indiana officials who say they've been doing something similar.
It's hard to believe that other states and the federal government itself would be far behind.
I've written a lot recently about other ways to cut down on telemarketing calls. There's the "Lenny" bot, which is truthfully one of my favorites from an entertainment standpoint, as it's simply an Australian chatbot designed to waste telemarketers' time.
And since Lenny hasn't actually been widely released, I also suggested perhaps we could all team up to do a sort of "manual Lenny" -- basically stringing telemarketers along, wasting their time, and driving up their employers' costs so as to destroy their business model.
Those stories got a giant response. Because it's a problem everyone faces.
And so, shouldn't our government work for us, instead of us having to hack together ideas on our own to solve these kinds of problems?