By Tara Siegel Bernard

New York Times News Service

It’s not just you.

Those annoying robocalls — at best annoying disturbances and at worst costly financial scams — are getting worse.

In an age when cellphones have become extensions of our bodies, robocallers follow people wherever they go, disrupting business meetings, church services and bedtime stories with their children.

Though automated calls have long plagued consumers, the volume has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching an estimated 3.4 billion in April, according to YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service.

That’s an increase of almost 900 million a month compared with a year ago.

Federal lawmakers have noticed the surge.

The House and Senate held hearings on the issue within the past two weeks, and each chamber has passed or introduced legislation aimed at curbing abuses. Federal regulators have noticed, issuing new rules in November that give phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.

Law enforcement authorities have noticed, too. Just the other week, New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman warned consumers about a scheme targeting people with Chinese last names, in which the caller purports to be from the Chinese Consulate and demands money. Since December, the New York Police Department said, 21 Chinese immigrants had lost a total of $2.5 million.

Despite these efforts, robocalls are a thorny problem to solve. Calls can travel through various carriers and a maze of networks, making it hard to pinpoint their origins, enabling the callers to evade rules.

Regulators are working with the telecommunications industry to find ways to authenticate calls, which would help unmask the callers.

In the meantime, the deceptive measures have become more sophisticated. In one tactic, known as “neighborhood spoofing,” robocallers use local numbers in the hope that recipients will be more likely to pick up.

It’s a trick that Dr. Gary Pess, a hand surgeon in Eatontown, New Jersey, knows all too well. He receives so many calls that mimic his area code and the first three digits of his phone number that he no longer answers them. But having to sort robocalls from emergency calls has cost him precious minutes.

Pess recounted an incident in which he didn’t recognize a number and figured it was a robocall. He later learned it was an emergency room doctor calling about a person who had severed a thumb that he wanted Pess to reattach. “It delayed the treatment of a patient,” he said.

Consumer advocates say they worry the flood of calls could get worse. A federal court ruling recently struck down a Barack Obama-era definition of an auto-dialer, leaving it to the Federal Communications Commission to come up with new guidance. Advocates fear that it will open the field to more robocallers, leaving consumers with little recourse.

Business groups, including the Consumer Bankers Association, counter that defining auto-dialers too broadly would hurt legitimate businesses trying to reach their customers.

Robocallers see the current FCC leadership “as friendly to industry,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, “and they are anticipating FCC rulings that will enable more calling and forgive past mistakes — or violations of the current law.”

A spokesman for the FCC said the commission would seek public comment on how auto-dialers should be defined, and then “take action based on the record it compiles.”

Automated calls are increasing because they are cheap and easy to make. Robocallers can easily dial millions of consumers daily, experts say, at little cost.

That’s essentially what one accused robocaller recently told legislators at a Senate hearing last month: Adrian Abramovich, a Miami man who regulators say made nearly 100 million “spoofed” robocalls, was peddling vacation packages that were advertised as coming from well-known companies like Marriott. But when consumers pressed to hear more, they were transferred to foreign call centers often trying to sell time shares, according to the FCC, which is seeking a $120 million fine. Abramovich has denied the charges and asked the regulator to reduce the penalty.

The calls are increasing despite stepped-up enforcement and other efforts to stamp them out, which some have likened to a game of Whac-a-Mole; robocallers find new phone numbers to hide behind once their numbers are ignored or blocked.

The federal Do Not Call List, which is supposed to help consumers avoid robocalls, instead resembles a tennis net trying to stop a flood. The list may prevent some (but not all) legitimate companies from calling people on the list, but it does little to deter fraudsters and marketers, some of them overseas, who are willing to take their chances and flout the law.

Complaints to federal regulators are also increasing sharply. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the Do Not Call Registry, said there were 4.5 million complaints about robocalls in 2017, more than double the 2.18 million complaints logged in 2013.

“Everywhere I go, it is what people talk about,” said Denise Grimsley, a Republican member of the Florida Senate, who said a woman named Elizabeth leaves her prerecorded messages several times daily selling a vacation package.

“But it’s not just annoying,” she added. “They are coming after your personal information.”

Florida passed a bill in March giving phone companies the authority to block certain robocalls.

Other efforts are underway. The Federal Trade Commission has held contests to encourage app developers to create innovative ways to block calls.

Some phone companies offer blocking services, though “many people don’t have access to free, effective robo-­blocking tools,” said Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst at Consumers Union.

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