It happens several times per day. Your cellphone rings, you glance at the screen and see an unfamiliar caller ID number from Bangor, or Sanford, or maybe Kittery …

“Don’t answer it!” warns the smart voice in your head. “It’s just another scam, plain as day.”

“But what if it isn’t?” frets the other, not-so-smart voice closer to your heart. “What if it’s really, really important? What if Uncle Fred died? Or what if Grandma has fallen and she can’t get up?”

So, you stand there paralyzed until the ringing stops, wait to see if you get a voicemail notification – which never happens – and resume doing whatever you were doing before you were so rudely interrupted.

Or maybe you answer, only to be greeted by a voice that (a) wants to send you on a dream vacation, (b) has alarming news about the status of your mortgage or student loan or (c) can help you renew the warranty on the car you traded in two years ago.

Either way, my friend, you have been robocalled. And you are far from alone.

According to the call blocking service YouMail, Maine received just over 11 million robocalls in January alone. That’s more than 355,000 time-wasting calls per day, or between eight and nine unwanted intrusions per Mainer each month.

“We’re creating an environment where no one wants to answer their phone,” Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said in an interview Wednesday. “And I hate not answering my phone, whether it’s from a business standpoint or a constituent standpoint. But I literally can’t do that anymore unless I recognize the number … because I get so many of these calls.”

Chenette and Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, appeared Tuesday before the Legislature’s Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee to attempt the impossible: Stop, or at least stem, the torrent of computer-generated robocalls flowing from all corners of the planet into our phones just as we’re sitting down to dinner, walking into an important meeting or otherwise trying to live our complicated lives free from some jerk in surreptitious search of our credit card number.

It’s a national epidemic. According to YouMail, 5.2 billion robocalls lit up screens across the United States in January, almost a twofold increase over the same month a year ago.

So, what can we do about it?

As Chenette told the committee, the federal government’s National Do Not Call Registry “only theoretically stops sales calls.” And the registry’s long list of exemptions – political, charitable, debt collection, informational and telephone survey calls – provide more than enough wiggle room for cagey scammers looking to pull an end run around that safeguard.

Better, says Chenette, to get the states directly involved – as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Montana and California already are.

Those states’ remedies range from prohibiting robocall access to mobile devices to requiring that telephone service providers offer free robocall-blocking software to customers. Some also include hefty penalties: Tennessee is considering legislation that slaps a robocaller with a $25,000 fine for each call that involves “spoofing,” or displaying a local incoming number when in fact the call originates far, far away.

Here in Maine, Chenette’s bill would make it illegal for a telemarketer to disguise their phone numbers or to use a recorded or artificial voice when making a sales pitch. Similarly, Tipping’s bill would make it a civil violation to provide misleading caller ID information during a telemarketing call.

Chenette stressed that both bills are in their infancy and could change dramatically as the committee dives into what is now uncharted legal territory.

But something’s got to give, he said.

“We can’t enforce anything if it’s not against the law,” he said. Nor, he added, should Maine “just sit around and assume the federal government is going to fix it.”

Chenette concedes that any strategy will be neither easy to enforce nor 100 percent foolproof. But to do nothing, he said, is to invite real harm.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Chenette received an email from a funeral director in York County who not only was tired of fending off incoming robocalls, but was also recently “spoofed” by a robocaller using his number to bother people all over creation.

From lost productivity to a damaged business reputation, “it’s an economic issue – not just an annoyance issue,” Chenette said. “There’s a dollar amount associated with that.”

Speaking of dollar signs, there is a way to at least make the robocallers’ lives more miserable while we wait for lawmakers to come up with a plan.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Jolly Roger Telephone Company.

For 99 cents per month, the California-based service will route robocalls seamlessly from your phone to a computer-generated “robot” programmed to not only connect with the actual scammer, but also to keep that person on the phone for as long as possible. The idea being that the longer the voice-activated robot succeeds in tying up the scammer, the fewer people down the line get scammed.

One of the robots goes by “Salty Sally.” In an online sample recording, the chirpy sounding woman strings along the scammer – a man with a heavy accent who sounds like he’s calling from the far side of the moon – while she simultaneously fends off an irate teenage child in search of a pair of jeans.

“I’m sorry, I’m completely distracted – I really didn’t hear anything you said,” Sally says around the two-minute mark. “You’re going to have to start again.”

“You listen carefully or not?” the caller finally demands after five minutes. Then he hangs up.

Or you might send your calls to “Jolly Roger.” Halfway through his call from a guy offering to knock 30 percent off his electricity bill, Roger interrupts: “Hold on … there’s a bee on my arm.”

“OK,” the scammer replies, “a bee?”

“You know what? You keep talking,” Roger tells him. “Go ahead and say that part again. I’m just going to keep quiet … because of the bee.”

“OK, no problem, sir,” replies the scammer. He then puts his supervisor on the line.

“It’s totally crawling up my arm,” Roger tells the supervisor. “It’s crawling up my arm. It’s freaking me out …”

Six minutes and 23 blissful seconds in, the supervisor finally curses and … click.

Forget about that new statute, folks.

Maine needs to hire Sally and Roger.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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