Nebraska lawmakers give first-round nod to bill that aims to swat down call spoofing

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers took aim Tuesday at scam artists who use fake telephone numbers to fool people into answering their calls.

Senators gave overwhelming first-round approval to Legislative Bill 693, introduced by State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings and 17 co-sponsors.

The Neighbor Spoofing Protection Act would make it illegal to use deceptive caller identification to “defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”

Under the bill, the Public Service Commission could punish violations with an administrative penalty of up to $2,000 each. Every violation associated with a specific phone number would be considered separately. The state attorney general also could pursue cases as violations of the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Halloran said he hopes the bill can help protect Nebraskans, especially elderly people who may be vulnerable to scams. The measure is similar to federal law, which already outlaws the use of spoofing to defraud people.

But others warned that the proposal’s effect would be limited. Many spoofing calls originate from the Internet or overseas and cannot be traced.

“As much as we’d like to stop it, this bill will not stop these calls,” said Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee chairman.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who cast the lone “no” vote on advancing LB 693, likened the effort to swatting mosquitoes. Kill one or two and a swarm of others appear.

“This is a waste of time,” he said. “You are not going to stop what you want to stop.”

The debate brought out numerous stories of spoofing calls and scams. Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair told of getting a call that appeared to be from the local hospital at a time when a family member was seriously ill. He answered, fearing the worst.

“Soon after that I had to buy a new phone,” he said, “because I threw it against the wall.”

LB 693 is patterned after a recently passed Kansas law and is among the growing attempts by states to regulate an annoying, and sometimes fraudulent, practice.

Complaints about telemarketers and phone scammers are among the leading gripes fielded by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office consumer hotline and the Federal Communications Commission.