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Robocalls, scams gaining steam

You’re in the shower. The phone rings. Your husband is out of town and you’ve been waiting for his call. You push through the curtain, your hair full of shampoo, you grab the phone and blurt out, “Hello?”

“Hello,” a voice answers, “this is Cindy with card services ...”

You’re in the car. You’re on the way to the hospital. Your phone rings. You think it might be the doctor. You feel around, find the phone, hold it to your ear while keeping your eyes on the road. “Hello?” you say anxiously.

“Hi, this is Philip with an important message about your credit ...”

You’re in a meeting. You’re about to say something important. Your phone rings. The number is similar to yours, and you figure it’s someone from your neighborhood. You excuse yourself. “Hello?” you say.

“A judgment has been ruled against you,” a voice bleats, “you have three days in which to reply or face penalties, possibly imprisonment ...”

Welcome to 2019, where the phone is a weapon of deception. A new study by the FCC projects that nearly half of all cell calls received this year will be spam. Junk. Uninvited voices designed to lure money or information.

Half of our calls? Half?

You’re on a ski slope. You lose sight of your partner. You wonder if she’s OK. Your phone rings. Maybe it’s her. Maybe she’s down. You yank off you gloves, toss aside your hand warmers, dig into your pocket and rush before it stops ringing. “Hello?” you say. “Are you OK?”

“This is Miriam with the Association of Retired Servicemen ...”


The thing that calls you

How did we get to this point? Once, a ringing phone was a sign that someone you knew wanted to talk to you, someone you’d be happy to hear from. How else would they have your number?

That was a long time ago, when phones plugged into walls and operators connected calls. Today, nearly half the time, it’s not even someone calling you. It’s some thing. A high-powered computer that can spit out thousands of calls in a flash, spraying robovoices across the landscape like a national rainstorm.

Telemarketers, the financial industry, travel companies, political campaigns, all combine to pummel us with unwanted calls — and lobby the government to protect their ability to do it — and that doesn’t even mention all the scams, ruses, frauds and downright illegal schemes that stay one step ahead of the smaller and overworked regulation agencies.

This field has grown so sophisticated, fraudsters can now create a number that looks like your number, and employ voice technology that mimics business people you might know.

According to a CNN article last fall, “a scammer could call you from what looks to be a familiar number and talk to you using a voice that sounds exactly like your bank teller’s, saying they’ve found suspicious activity on your account. You’re then tricked into ‘confirming’ your address, mother’s maiden name, card number and PIN number.”

Great. Another thing to worry about besides stolen passwords, credit card fraud, hacked-into bank accounts and identity theft.

Tell me again how computer technology is the most wonderful development of the last half-century.

Madness is getting worse

What’s really troubling is how little the government is doing to stop this. Remember when they invented the Do Not Call Registry? And everyone thought that would halt this mess?

Guess again. The Do Not Call Registry is largely a joke today, ineffective against robocall makers and overseas entities that treat privacy like an ant under a shoe. By the time some of the scammers are discovered, they’ve moved on. By the time certain blocking technologies are developed, infiltrators have invented newer technologies to outsmart them.

The FCC, in a recent report, says progress is being made, even as another report showed that robocalls in 2018 were up 57 percent from the year before. A 57 percent increase doesn’t sound like progress.

There is a technology called SHAKEN/STIR that the FCC is demanding phone companies adopt, which ensures the number you are seeing on your screen is real and not “spoofed” to look like a familiar number. But by the time this is implemented by all carriers, a new form of fraud might be in play.

All of which has led people to ignore phone calls altogether, refusing to answer, checking the display and frowning in disgust.

Not that this is a great solution ...

You’re on your way home. It’s Friday night. Your phone rings. You check the number. It looks vaguely familiar, but not completely, and you press “ignore” and congratulate yourself.

The next day, your best friend calls. “Hey, you won’t believe this. Someone gave us four tickets to the Beyonce concert last night. We tried calling you on Bill’s phone, but you didn’t answer. It was so great! Sorry you missed it.”

Somewhere Alexander Graham Bell is shaking his head and saying, “What happened?”

And then his heavenly phone rings and a voice says, “This is the IRS, an arrest warrant has been issued in your name ... .”

Albom, a Detroit Free Press columnist, may be reached at

Voice of the People 03/05/19

Letter-writer misses point

A reply to the Feb. 24 “Not what Jesus Christ had in mind” letter to the editor.

What do “grossly overpaid” wages paid to baseball, football, basketball players, actors, rock stars and country music stars have to do with Christ dying on a cross? A Christian believes that Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead to redeem sinful man. The “grossly overpaid” various vocations have nothing to do with Christ dying on a cross.

How wealthy individuals dispense of their wealth is not related to Christ’s redemptive work. The greed and selfishness, which may be present, is the result of the actions of this sinner, not because Jesus Christ died on a cross. What record, movie, rock star and country singers’ producers wish to pay their performers is totally separate from how I may feel about Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.

Jesus had “us” in mind when he died on the cross, not the way we treat our entertainers of the day.

Robert Beine

Eau Claire

It's time to rein in tariffs

The Trump administration recently dropped its threat to jack up the tariffs it previously imposed on $200 billion worth of imported Chinese goods, which should come as a relief to the many U.S. businesses and consumers that are paying them. On the other hand, President Donald Trump may be moving closer to slapping tariffs on imported cars, trucks and auto parts, despite widespread opposition — including from the Big Three U.S. automakers.

Simply put, Trump likes tariffs. They give him a bigger stick in trade talks with countries whose economies are sustained by exports, such as China, much of Europe and South Korea. And he has wide latitude to levy them, thanks to the power Congress has entrusted to the president since 1934.

But 20th century lawmakers probably did not envision a chief executive using tariffs the way Trump has. And now that Trump is wielding import duties like a club on U.S. allies and adversaries alike, current members of Congress are trying to take some of that power back.

In particular, they are seeking to pull back some of the authority Congress granted the White House in 1962, at the height of the Cold War. The main purpose of the law was to let the president strike trade deals that cut tariffs and other trade barriers, but it also gave the president authority to raise trade barriers if he deemed it necessary to protect national security.

Before Trump, this power was invoked only twice, in both cases to block crude oil imports: first from Iran, after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, and then from Libya in 1982, in response to that country’s support for terrorism. Trump, however, has used the national-defense rationale as a flag of convenience, imposing tariffs with only a fanciful connection to U.S. security interests.

Slapping tariffs on imported vehicles and parts would inflict widespread collateral damage on U.S. companies, workers and consumers. Supply chains are global now, so even cars and trucks made in the United States may rely on imported components. And like a sales tax, tariffs ultimately raise costs for consumers, depressing demand. That’s why U.S. automakers, whose interests are supposedly being protected here, hate the idea. So do farmers and other U.S. exporters, because Trump’s tariffs have prompted our trading partners to retaliate with levies on U.S. products.

And so, evidently, does a sizable and bipartisan group of senators. They have introduced two competing bills — one would make it harder for presidents to use national security as a pretext to impose tariffs or other trade barriers and the other would give Congress the power to quickly revoke such actions. Similar measures have been introduced by bipartisan groups in the House.

Los Angeles Times

From Our Files 03/05/19

5 years ago — 2014

RadioShack announces it will close up to 1,100 stores, or about one-fifth of its U.S. locations.

10 years ago — 2009

Some downtown Eau Claire property owners are upset about being assessed $57,819 for antique-style streetlights that cost $4,100 per light.

20 years ago — 1999

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, discusses the federal budget surplus with Eau Claire business leaders.

35 years ago — 1984

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that communities may have Nativity scenes in their Christmas displays without violating the separation of church and state.

U.S. wages remain a concern

If U.S. companies needed more evidence that scrutiny of wages is intensifying, they heard it last week in Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s testimony to Congress.

The subject came up several times. One memorable exchange was with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. He asked Powell whether the “Fed’s employment mandate is just to ensure that people are employed” or whether full employment implies something more, that “workers earn a salary and benefits that let them fully participate in the 2019 economy and our country.”

Powell dodged the question, instead reminding Brown that U.S. unemployment is at a 50-year low and that the Fed lacks the tools to “affect every social problem.” It’s true that the Fed’s mandate is to maximize employment, not wages, and that the Fed probably can’t raise wages, even if it wanted to.

But as long as workers continue to receive less than a living wage, no one should be surprised that concerned lawmakers are looking for every opportunity to intervene, however implausible or ill-advised. If companies won’t raise their employees’ pay, the government will try to do it for them.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual family income in the U.S. was $75,938 in 2017. But in my hometown of Indianapolis, which is among the more affordable cities in the U.S., a family of four needs an annual income of $82,285 to cover necessities such as housing, food, child care, transportation and health care, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

That may not seem like much of a difference, but remember that half of U.S. families earn less than the median income, which means that millions of Americans are struggling to afford the basics. Also, EPI’s numbers leave no room for savings, so half of families can’t save for retirement or unforeseen expenses.

The numbers for individuals are no better. Median annual personal income was $31,099 in 2016. EPI estimates that one adult with no dependents would need $33,530 to cover necessities.

There are other reasons to wonder whether headline unemployment tells the whole story. In theory, employment and inflation should be opposing forces. Low unemployment implies that workers, in aggregate, have more money to spend, which should push up prices. But if low wages are keeping a lid on spending, that might explain why inflation has been muted.

Also, prime-age workers are dropping out of the labor force. No one knows exactly why, but it’s worth considering whether low wages are discouraging them.

Companies can address the problem by simply paying workers more reasonable wages. Fortunately, big U.S. companies are enjoying record profits, so it wouldn’t be a stretch. It’s also in companies’ long-term interest to do so because it would pre-empt what is likely to be a more intrusive and less effective intervention by lawmakers.

Kaissar is a Bloomberg News columnist and founder of Unison Advisors, an asset management firm.