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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers expects Congress to hold scam phone call oversight hearings amid coronavirus pandemic

In this image from video, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2020. (House Television via AP)
In this image from video, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2020. (House Television via AP)
By Khadija Islow For The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – Americans can expect the U.S. House of Representatives to hold special oversight hearings to examine the increase in scam robocalls offering help related to the coronavirus outbreak and what further action can be taken against the scammers, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says.

The Spokane Republican said she has learned of many examples of Americans being taken advantage of by scammers during the pandemic.

“People have received a call and described it as sounding very legitimate and, in that process, sharing financial information or signing up for a scam.

“It’s unacceptable,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Each day in April, scammers placed more than 1 million calls to Americans’ cellphones, according to YouMail, a company that offers an app to block robocalls. Scammers are offering free home test kits and personal protective equipment to people, said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici.

Scammers are offering to deliver testing kits to people’s homes even though there are currently no take-home coronavirus tests.

“The coronavirus has caused the U.S. to declare a national emergency,” began one call registered by Nomorobo, another app that blocks robocalls. “If you want to receive a free testing kit delivered overnight to your home, press 1.”

Quilici said the callers have been successful because they use terminology people often hear in the media.

“They are trying to find the right language that will either get you to pick up the phone, press 1 and call back. Whatever is in the news now is probably going to be the most useful thing for their scam,” said Quilici.

Congress last year passed the TRACED Act, supported by McMorris Rodgers, to help the Federal Communications Commission and federal law enforcement fight against these robocalls. The law helped put “more tools in the toolbox” of federal law enforcement so they can hold these scammers accountable, said McMorris Rodgers, who co-sponsored similar legislation.

Since the TRACED Act was passed, YouMail has been working with USTelecom, an organization that represents telecommunications-related businesses based in the United States, to identify the origin of scam calls so carriers can quickly shut off the people making the calls, said Quilici.

On April 3, the Federal Trade Commission sent joint warning letters with the Federal Communications Commission to three companies providing Voice Over Internet Protocol services for transmitting scam robocalls, including coronavirus-related scam calls. These calls were identified by USTelecom.

Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, allows users to call others using the internet rather than traditional phone lines.

“I would anticipate that when we return to Washington, D.C., and Congress, that there will be some oversight hearings that will further look at what happened, what is happening and what further action we can take,” McMorris Rodgers said.

While there has been an increase in scam robocalls relating to the coronavirus, Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, estimates that scam robocalls overall are down by 50% since January. He said this large decrease is because of lockdowns put in place by countries around the world.

Quilici from YouMail said, “We have seen a huge slowdown in the volume of these calls, but it’s simply because call centers globally are operating at very reduced or no capacity.”

While companies like Nomorobo and YouMail offer apps that block scam robocalls, Quilici said Americans should do their research before making any payments or calls. This includes checking if the caller’s number matches with the number on the company’s website.

“I think equipping people so that they have the information, that they’re educated about what is legitimate and what might be a scam, is important,” McMorris Rodgers agreed.

Khadija Islow reports for Medill News Service.

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