Nebraska senator targets ‘spoofed’ phone calls by telemarketers, scam artists

Nebraska senator targets ‘spoofed’ phone calls by telemarketers, scam artists
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Exasperated by phone calls from scam artists using fake telephone numbers, Larry D. TeSelle came to the State Capitol on Tuesday to ask lawmakers to do something.

The retiree from Milford, Nebraska, said he’s gotten calls that show up on his caller ID as originating from a state office, the county clerk and from Medicare, asking for his Social Security number and other personal information. But none of the calls were legitimate, he said.

TeSelle was a victim of “neighborhood spoofing,” the practice of telemarketers and scam artists using what appears to be a local phone number that shows up on someone’s caller ID to fool them into answering the phone call. In some cases, the scammers obtain valuable personal data.

He said he gets at least two spoofed phone calls a day and just recently was told that his phone number was used to spoof someone in Alaska. TeSelle said it’s gotten so bad that he’s declined to answer phone calls that were legitimate, such as one from his local doctor.

Help may be on the way.

State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings has introduced the “Neighbor Spoofing Protection Act,” which would ban callers from using deceptive caller ID information with the intent to “defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” Legislative Bill 693, which has 16 co-sponsors, 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, the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee was told during a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

“I could share story after story about this problem,” Halloran said. “Spoofing has become a scourge.”

In one case, a couple told him they received a spoofed phone call that appeared to originate from a local hospital — a hospital where a loved one had been admitted.

“One can only imagine the anxiety this would have caused,” Halloran said. “But it was a telemarketer trying to sell them something. The couple became infuriated and slammed the phone.”

Danny DeLong of AARP Nebraska told committee members that spoofed calls are increasing at an alarming rate and are regularly targeting older adults who are more vulnerable to such scams. He said that one telecommunications company estimated that nine in 10 calls from scammers will display a local area code in 2019.

But representatives of the telecommunications industry said spoofing is a nationwide issue that will require a nationwide solution. It is more difficult for companies to comply with “duplicative” and varying laws passed state by state than it would be if the FCC acted, said Eric Carstenson, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, a group of telephone companies.

Julia Plucker of the Nebraska Cable Communications Association said her group was also in “reluctant opposition” to LB 693, and urged the committee to wait for a solution from the FCC.

Federal law already outlaws the use of spoofing to defraud someone, according to Tim Schram of the Nebraska Public Service Commission. But, he said, the law is difficult to enforce because many of the calls originate from the Internet or overseas and cannot be traced.

Halloran said he’s aware that federal officials are discussing a nationwide solution. But he said Nebraskans want action now, and he doubts that federal regulation will happen.

“There’s probably as good a chance of that happening as there is of balancing the federal budget and reducing the national debt,” he said.

Halloran said the technology most likely exists to block calls that use a spoofed phone number. It may raise telephone and wireless bills slightly to deploy it, he said, but the cost would be worth it if it stops or reduces such calls.

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee took no action Tuesday after the public hearing.

Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen, who chairs the committee, said it would be difficult to regulate spoofing on the state level because scammers who do it can literally change phone numbers hourly to get around attempts to block the calls.

“But if we can even slow it down, we’ll look at regulating it,” Friesen said.

Lawmakers hear testimony on how tax deduction caps have led to unexpected income tax hikes

LINCOLN — Some Nebraska taxpayers are getting an unwelcome surprise this year because of President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law: an unexpected increase in their state income taxes.

On Wednesday, a state legislative committee took testimony on two proposals that would attempt to fix that.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha said constituents and tax accountants began calling her after noticing one of the unexpected changes.

Under the federal tax changes, a cap of $10,000 was placed on how much local and state taxes could be deducted from federal income tax liability, and because state tax law follows federal tax law, a $10,000 cap on deductions of such taxes also applied to state income taxes.

Linehan said the caps meant that owners of homes that cost roughly $350,000 or more weren’t able to fully deduct the property taxes they’d paid, and were, in effect, paying state taxes on those property taxes.

Last year, state lawmakers passed Legislative Bill 1090 in an attempt to avoid an estimated $226 million worth of tax increases in 2018 — and tax increases in subsequent years — because of the federal changes passed by Congress in December 2017. The goal was to keep Nebraska taxpayers, as a whole, from being affected.

But Linehan said the impact of the new deduction cap, estimated to cost about 50,000 taxpayers an additional $22 million, was somehow overlooked.

“There is nothing more insulting than taxing people on their taxes,” she said, after explaining an amendment to her LB 288 aimed at fixing the problem.

Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen is seeking to fix a second overlooked problem via LB 664, which would restore an $11 million-a-year tax break given to manufacturing companies that was erased by the federal tax changes.

Renee Fry of the Open Sky Policy Institute opposed the bill, testifying that Congress decided that the tax break was no longer necessary and that it had been offset by a reduction in the federal corporate tax rate.

The Legislature’s Revenue Committee also heard testimony Wednesday on two bills that would both lower and increase state income taxes. No action was taken on any of the four measures, but the committee was urged to include income tax changes as part of the effort to lower property taxes in Nebraska.

Bill advances that would waive initial health care licensing costs for some Nebraskans

Licensing fees. Nebraska would waive initial health care licensing costs for young Nebraskans, low-income residents and military families under a bill advanced Thursday.

Legislative Bill 112, introduced by State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, cleared first-round consideration with no dissenting votes. Howard said the measure would help people get started more quickly in health care professions. She said several other states already waive or reduce such fees for certain groups.

“Not being able to afford a license should never be a barrier to starting a career path,” she said.

Under the bill, licensing fees and the cost of criminal background checks needed for licensing could be waived for the initial licensing year. Howard said the cost of the waivers would be spread among the thousands of licensed health care professionals in the state and would amount to only a few cents each.

The bill would make waivers available for young adults ages 18 through 25; low-income people, including those on public assistance programs, such as Medicaid or food stamps, or whose income is less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level; and military families, including active duty service members, veterans and their spouses.

Reducing property taxes. The Legislature’s Revenue Committee sent a clear signal Thursday that property tax relief will be their top priority in 2019.

The committee, meeting in executive session, decided to defer any action on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to increase a tax break for military retirees until after taking action on a package of proposals to lower property taxes.

LB 153 would provide about $12 million a year in income tax breaks for such retirees, which the governor portrayed as a way to retain highly trained workers.

But senators on the Revenue Committee said that a property tax package needed to be advanced first, then it could be determined whether the military veteran proposal could be added.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha said she hopes to get that package to the floor of the Legislature by mid-April to provide plenty of time for debate.

Taxing internet sales. A bill that would require collection of Nebraska sales taxes by internet firms outside the state was advanced on a unanimous vote Thursday by the Revenue Committee to debate by the full Legislature. LB 284 is a combination of three proposals, and could become effective as early as April 1.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for states to begin collecting the tax on internet firms like Amazon, EBay and Etsy. It had been a sort point for years by brick-and-mortar retailers in Nebraska, who were already paying taxes on sales and maintained that internet firms got an unfair price break.

Tax deed sales. The Revenue Committee also advanced LB 463, which would give owners of property in which taxes were delinquent more rigorous notification that they risk losing their property. Senators said that they may try to amend the bill during floor debate to require newspaper notices to include the name and address of the delinquent taxpayers, not just the legal description of the property.