Battle against robo-calls should be more than a pipe dream
Remember the days before robocalls? When your landline and cell phone were free from scam artists selling something, threatening you with arrest, wheedling to extract a credit-card number?
Nah, we can’t either. The number of unwanted calls in the U.S. is measured in the tens of billions each year. The Federal Communications Commission, citing private analyses, says American consumers were hit with almost 4 billion robocalls a month in 2018.
Still, there is cause for skeptical optimism on this front, even though the odds seemed perpetually stacked in favor of scammers who’ve perfected the art of the auto-dial. In July the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the Stop Bad Robocalls Act, which would require telecom companies to step up enforcement and give consumers more ways to insulate themselves. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., coasted through on a 429-3 vote. It’s now before the Senate.
A week ago a group of state attorneys general — including Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gurbir Grewal of New Jersey — announced an agreement they’d reached with the 12 largest phone service providers. The companies, including Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile and AT&T, signed on to offer free call-blocking services to customers. They agreed to keep a closer watch on robocalls and help authorities identify and track phone scammers.
The Federal Trade Commission is stepping up enforcement. Working with federal, state and local investigators, the FTC recently announced charges against three firms and one individual believed to be responsible for more than 1 billion illegal spam calls.
While this qualifies as a start, there’s more to be done. Not all robocalls and phone solicitations are illegal, but the system has been gamed by those who have mastered easy-to-use technology, often operating from safe havens overseas.
The best hope rests with the industry — with government oversight to check on compliance. Several companies have taken steps to install an anti-“spoofing” technology called STIR/SHAKEN, which allows consumers with caller ID to know if an incoming calls is bona fide or a spammer using a local or familiar number.
And there are call-blocking apps that can be downloaded, some for free.
State and federal “Do Not Call” registries are still accepting numbers and trying to help, but we know from experience they don’t provide anything close to a firewall. People can still report robocalls to the feds at ftc.gov/calls.
We need a unified effort — government, industry and individual — to make a dent in the extortion-by-phone business. No one is expecting total peace and quiet, but we should be able to “weaponize” the consumer, to help neutralize the criminal on the other end of the line. Seeing some of the worst offenders talking to themselves in prison would be rewarding, too.
Easton Times-Express / www.lehighvalleylive.com
Keep learning from tragedy of World War II
The Reading Eagle
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the 1939 German invasion of Poland, the event that marked the beginning of World War II. It’s an occasion that must remain strong in the world’s collective memory, even as we slowly lose the people who can speak of it from firsthand experience.
Within days of the Sept. 1 invasion, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada declared war on Germany. The coming years would see more nations invaded and more countries involved in an escalating global conflict. By the time the war ended about six years later, it had claimed the lives of about 80 million people.
For Poland, however, memories of the invasion are about far more than its importance in the larger context of the war. That nation was struck with overwhelming force by the Nazi regime. To make matter worse, the Soviet Union also invaded, as dictator Josef Stalin had made a deal with Adolf Hitler to divide the country between them. Poland alone lost some 6 million citizens during the war, including some 3 million Polish Jews. And as several speakers noted during weekend commemorations of the invasion, the Nazis’ goal was not just to control the country but to devastate its people and wipe out its culture.
But Sunday’s ceremonies also send a heartening message to a world embroiled in conflicts that remind many of the era leading up to World War II. Though the unthinkable horrors inflicted during that war remain in living memory, the presidents of Germany and Poland were able to stand side by side and express a message of unity. There was contrition from the German side and forgiveness from the Poles.
“I bow my head before the Polish victims of German tyranny and I ask forgiveness,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “We are deeply grateful for Poland’s hand extended in a gesture of forgiveness.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda said German leaders facing the difficult historical truth “has the power to bring forgiveness and the power of building friendships.”
Even as we acknowledge that there are still disagreements between Poland and Germany over matters relating to the war, particularly as it concerns reparations, the fact that these former bitter enemies have become friends and allies should send a message to the rest of us in this world riven by conflicts large and small: Reconciliation is possible no matter how difficult the situation.
World War II also teaches us that the opposite approach to reconciliation can lead to consequences far too painful to even contemplate. We pray that the world will not forget these lessons.
Educating ourselves on the deadly dangers of fentanyl
“An East Hempfield Township man who was charged last year for his part in a fentanyl-laced heroin bust that involved $50,000 worth of the drug” has been sentenced to six to 30 years in prison, LancasterOnline staff reported Aug. 13. Meanwhile, authorities stated that “a Lancaster County Drug Task Force bust of a Manheim man resulted in the seizure of 220 bags of fentanyl,” LancasterOnline reported Aug. 23. Finally, The Associated Press reported late last week that law enforcement officials in Virginia took down a multistate drug ring that was in possession of “enough cheap fentanyl from China to kill 14 million people.”
Let’s start with a fentanyl primer, as many of us must educate ourselves on this drug and its immense dangers.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal research institute: “Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally. Like morphine, it is a medicine that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery. It is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called fentanyl the deadliest drug in America.
Fentanyl in prescription form most often comes as a shot, a patch or lozenges that are sucked like cough drops, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It’s different, though, in its illegal street form. Those doses come “as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers and nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like other prescription opioids.” Its illegal forms can have street names such as Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Jackpot, Murder 8, and Tango & Cash.
Even worse, some street dealers mix cheaper fentanyl with other drugs because it takes very little to produce a high. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, “This is especially risky when people taking drugs don’t realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive.”
Illegal forms of fentanyl are widely available in Lancaster County and southcentral Pennsylvania. The drug is shattering lives, tearing families apart and killing our neighbors.
On Friday, the official Twitter account for Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman sent out this alert: “We are receiving information from emergency responders about a spike in overdose incidents in Lancaster County over the past week or so.”
And, earlier this summer, the district attorney’s office issued an advisory about blue pills that appear to be prescription medicine but are actually pressed fentanyl tablets that can be deadly. Some of the pills are blue, are stamped with “M” and “30,” and can look similar to Percocet tablets, LNP’s Lindsey Blest reported.
Stedman’s office is working aggressively to put those who sell or deliver fatal doses of fentanyl behind bars.
One of the most recent cases, reported on LancasterOnline on Friday, involved a Lancaster Township man who was sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison for providing a fentanyl-laced heroin batch that caused a Conestoga Township man to overdose and die in 2017. Prior to his sentencing, the man told the court, “I lost everything I had, but nothing compared to losing a loved one.”
So far this year in Lancaster County, 47 people have died of an overdose, according to data from OverdoseFreePa, a statewide online database. Of those deaths, 36 involved fentanyl.
Fentanyl knows no demographic barriers. On Friday, it was reported by the AP that Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, who died July 1, had fentanyl and oxycodone in his system, along with alcohol.
Certainly, this is one of the most insidious drugs we’re dealing with in battling the opioid epidemic.
One thing we can do is watch for signs of fentanyl use or addiction by friends and family members.
The drug’s effects, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, can include extreme happiness, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation and sedation. And when someone is attempting to stop using the drug, he or she may experience muscle pain, sleeping problems, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes and severe cravings. “These (withdrawal) symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and are the reason many people find it so difficult to stop taking fentanyl,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse noted.
Help is available, though. For ourselves and our loved ones.
Pennsylvanians can call 800-662-HELP (4357) for information about treatment resources in battling drug problems. It is completely confidential. The hotline, staffed by trained professionals, is available 24/7 in both English and Spanish.
We should educate ourselves and especially our children about the great dangers of fentanyl. That knowledge could save a life.
And we urge those who are suffering from opioid addiction or those who have a loved one dealing with an addiction to seek help immediately.
Walmart step begins journey
Gun rights absolutists likely will scoff at Walmart’s decision to end the sale of certain types of ammunition following yet another mass murder in Texas over the Labor Day weekend.
But the chain’s decision is important even though the types of ammunition at issue are available elsewhere.
The key to diminishing U.S. gun violence is finally to apply some reason to the nation’s anything-goes gun culture, which is a matter beyond the law itself. There are many parallels. Gradual changes in the culture, rather than any particular law, drove down U.S. smoking rates, for example.
Walmart long has been a part of the gun culture. Its decision to stop selling the types of ammunition used in military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, while continuing to sell weapons and ammunition used for hunting, and to ask its customers not to carry weapons openly in Walmart stores, itself is a major statement. It emphasizes that the right to bear arms, like every right, comes with limits and responsibilities — including the responsibility to put public safety on an equal footing with the right to gun ownership.
Sensible people naturally look to their elected state and federal legislatures to protect public safety. But changing the culture at the grass-roots is the surest guarantee that elected politicians finally will act in the public interest.
Like the Dick’s sporting goods chain before it, Walmart has recognized its responsibility. Pressure on their competitors to follow suit would further the process of changing the culture from the bottom up, making it politically safe for politicians to protect public safety.
Regulate license plate readers: Police tech is ripe for due process violations
Much like facial recognition technology, automated license plate readers are becoming a popular new tool of law enforcement.
And, like facial recognition, the use of plate readers has developed faster than the regulations governing their use, meaning there are no consistent limits on the technology and its application. That has opened the door for potential misuse that threatens both privacy and due process.
Developed about 10 years ago, the popularity of license plate readers has been rising in the past two years. They have been deployed by the hundreds across Pennsylvania and by the thousands across the country, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy nonprofit.
License plate readers are typically mounted in police cars or on stationary objects like bridges or road signs. They use high-speed cameras to capture thousands of license plates per minute. The readers automatically run each plate through a state database, checking for violations or warrants related to the vehicle. Police officers are alerted to such matters as an unpaid fine to outstanding warrants.
Where is the due process? Historically, police need probable cause to pull over a person and to run a check on his or her plates.
Authorities can cast this broad net using the same legal rationale that is used for a DUI checkpoint: Everyone is subject to the same level of scrutiny.
But, the massive scope of this information-collecting technology pushes the practice into new and concerning circles.
Then there’s this question: What becomes of all that information — the photos, geolocation information and database checks? Local policies vary with communities setting their own standards for where the information is stored, who has access to it, how long it is stored and how it is used.
Some communities in Pennsylvania have set their own standards for the use and storage of data collected by the readers. For example, some municipalities store data for days, others for months.
House Bill 317, proposed recently by state Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland County would set statewide rules and regulations that would lend consistency in the use, storage and access of information collected from automatic license plate readers. Mr. Rothman proposed a similar bill last year that was passed by the House, but it died in the Senate.
HB 317 moves in the right direction but not quite to where it needs to be. For example, it proposes that municipalities be allowed to store data collected by the readers for a year before it must be purged. This is too long. A better model is Allegheny County, which stores the information for just 10 days.
The threat to civil liberties is plain: Drivers are being documented and meticulously analyzed by police equipment without their knowledge or their consent, without probable cause or due process. It is done in the name of community safety, convenience and economies. But at what cost?
Copyright 2019 The Associated Press.