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Tech and regulations can only go so far in blocking scammers

Along with traditional crimes associated with the holidays – shoplifting, stealing from vehicles and mail theft – technology has brought us a bevy of new scams. You can count on internet ripoffs to abound, along with telemarketing fraud, for instance.

You can also count on your Christmas downtime to be assaulted by telemarketers, particularly of the scammy variety. That’s where the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s latest rules come into play. As of today (December 19), Canadians are to have a call-blocking system that better protects themselves against unsolicited and illegitimate calls, with telecommunications service providers required to comply.

The goal is to block what’s known as caller ID spoofing in which callers misrepresent themselves to perpetrate a fraud or to trick you into answering the phone so they can make their pitch. The spoofing sees caller IDs altered to match the first 6-digits of your telephone number so that it looks like a local call, perhaps from a neighbour in your area, also known as ‘neighbouring.’ Likewise, the caller ID may display your own telephone number, also known as ‘mirroring.’ The caller ID may display the number of another individual and/or organization (i.e., pose as a recognizable brand). Or the caller ID may be altered to represent a number that cannot be dialled within the telephone network (e.g. 123-456-7890, 999-999-9999, etc.), the CRTC warns.

Under the new system mandated by the federal agency, calls with caller ID information that either exceeds 15 digits or does not conform to a number that can be dialled will be blocked before reaching your phone.

“Canadians need to have the right tools to manage nuisance calls. With the implementation of a call blocking system, calls that are malformed will be stopped within the network. At the same time, we are working with the industry on other tools to better protect Canadians from nuisance calls, including a process to alert them when the caller ID has been spoofed,” says Ian Scott, CEO of the CRTC.

Crooks and scammers will undoubtedly find end-runs around the new provisions, just as there’s are workarounds for the “do not call” lists (DNCL). The online world is an even bigger strike-and-counter game to keep consumers safe.

While the new anti-spoofing measures come with fines for those found guilty – $1,500 for individuals and $15,000 for telemarketing companies – telemarketers who violate the DNCL rules operate in the same environment, with fairly limited repercussions.

Either the government isn’t willing to follow through on legislation that saw millions of Canadians sign up for the national DNCL, or the CRTC, which runs the program, is being extremely lax. Or both, which does seem to be the case.

To those of us facing those calls that usually comes as we’re sitting down to dinner – Do you want your carpets cleaned? New windows? Trash hauled away? – the solution is simple: ban such calls outright, impose crippling fines and enforce them vigorously. That would represent a major shift in government policy: doing something that Canadians actually want, instead of finding new ways to waste money and inconvenience us.

Critics, largely those in the telemarketing field, naturally oppose such a move, claiming it would put some companies out of business – the industry is worth some $18 billion, employing almost 300,000 people. That may be a concern, but it is irrelevant to the argument: like so-called spam e-mail, unwanted calls clog up a resource the consumer pays for himself and interferes in receiving valued information. The phone is an essential tool: people shouldn’t have to deal with unwanted calls if that is their desire, nor should they have to resort to technical screening tools to do so.

The government’s own studies show 80 per cent of us find telemarketing calls annoying, with more than 60 per cent in favour of the registry.

When the current legislation was introduced, it was immediately lambasted for its looseness and loopholes, critiques that have proven to have been well founded. The list was essentially neutered from the start.

A better idea? Make the practice of telemarketing illegal – that includes any and all groups – and allow the industry to create a “do-call” list: anybody who wants such calls can sign an agreement explicitly allowing the annoyance. In that way, the costs are borne directly by the industry, and everyone is automatically covered, with no need to opt out.

Sweeping changes and severe penalties offered up at no cost to taxpayers is the only useful course of action in what would otherwise be a public relations stunt doomed to backfire.

But incremental steps are as much as we can expect, with scammers, fraudsters and the most annoying telemarketers undoubtedly already developing workarounds. The technology battle is difficult to win, and legislative measures by any one country fruitless in the face of the global reach of determined crooks.

Of course, simply ignoring the phone and hitting the hang-up button is the last and best defence, paying no heed to phone scammers and unscrupulous hucksters. Now, if only it were so easy to avoid them online.

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