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We think technology can solve the world’s problems, but it can’t even stop robocalling

Now that we have a new head of the FCC, let’s see if he can fix this once and for all.

Saturday Night Live / NBC

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

We like to think technology can solve our pressing problems, but there’s one problem it has not been able to solve. It’s a problem that, if solved, would have one of the most positive impacts on our daily lives. No, it’s not related to health care, it’s not a new self-driving car, nor does it solve any life-and-death issue. It’s the problem of robocalls.

This is an issue we all understand, all experience and all universally hate, regardless of political affiliation. If a politician made this his goal to solve and succeeded, that person could be reelected in a landslide.

Yet still, after years and years of this intrusion on our privacy, it keeps getting worse. While originally a problem just with landlines, it’s now pervasive on cellphones and affects more than 250 million of us in the U.S. — essentially everyone with a phone.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, calls are already up 50 percent this year from four billion last year. That’s four billion interruptions that generally come at the most inopportune times. And few of those calls bring us any benefits. They’re either scams, solicitations or some attempt to steal our money, identity or banking account information. They prey mostly on the elderly and uninformed, yet they can sometimes fool the most knowledgeable among us. And they cost the innocent billions of dollars per year.

Robocalling has brought out the dregs of humanity, with callers impersonating Microsoft telling us our computer is infected, or an IRS agent telling us we need to pay now or go to jail. Robocalling can turn a pleasant evening into an annoying one, with many of us getting a number of calls throughout the day.

This problem is a demonstration of how technology, as well as our government, has failed us. Technology enabled the robocalling machines and, while politicians wrangle about divisive social issues that affect few, no one tackles a problem that millions experience and would all be grateful for it to be solved.

There is little doubt that with a concerted effort by the cellular providers, the FCC and even the phone manufacturers, the problem could be solved. I don’t have the solution, but it’s not hard to imagine how one could be found by creating a combination of a database, an app and some strong enforcement. Cellular providers and the FCC can identify and filter out calls from certain gateways, authenticate the numbers used for calling and create a database of bogus numbers.

The Do Not Call List Registry the government created years ago has no enforcement power and many loopholes. It doesn’t work, yet the FCC still has a website that makes you think it does, complete with complaint forms to fill out.

Caller ID, one of the tools intended to help us screen calls, has been turned on its head, with robocalls now spoofing local numbers and fake identities to make us pick up the call. Many of the calls originate from outside the country, where there’s no enforcement. Even legitimate companies, such as Stratics Networks, a company I randomly selected from those offering robocalling services, advertise how their robocalling service can “Assign custom local or toll-free Caller IDs to your broadcast.”

It should be an embarrassment to the industry that, while the FCC and the carriers procrastinate, a small company has found a solution for some situations. Nomorobo has been able to help users who use VoIP calling and/or iPhones significantly reduce the number of robocalls. The company has about 300,000 subscribers who give the company high grades for reducing or eliminating the calls.

Others have tried, including several companies offering hardware solutions (basically a box to screen the incoming number) and allow you to designate it as a robocall to block the number from calling again. But, with numbers changing randomly, these solutions aren’t very good, based on my experiences.

My own solution to eliminate these calls at home is to cancel my wired phone line and switch to VoIP calling, where I’ll have a better chance of screening out these calls.

Now that we have a new head of the FCC, let’s see if he can fix this once and for all.

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies, including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript and founder of Techsperts Inc. Follow him at Baker on Tech and reach him @pbaker.

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