New law helps Public Service Commission to crackdown on scams

By BOBBY HARRISON - MISSISSIPPI TODAY,

Just about the time legislators were passing a bill during the 2019 session to strengthen the state’s Telephone Solicitation Act, the office of Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley got a report of how a north Mississippi woman was scammed out of $5,000.

The telephone scammer told the woman she owed the money for missing jury duty.

Presley said under existing law, his office was limited in its jurisdiction to investigate the case because it was not a case of someone alleging to sell a product or property – instances that are normally covered under the Telephone Solicitation Act.

“It was stealing,” Presley said. “And cases like that often are pinged ponged back and forth among agencies and finally the victim gives up.”

Presley said he told his staff to work with legislators on the bill that already was pending before them to make sure his agency had additional jurisdiction to work with law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and resolve such cases.

Presley said his office knows the group perpetuating the scam against the woman is operating in the United States and had conducted similar operations in about 15 other states.

“Come July 1, we are taking the Buford Pusser approach to these cases,” said Presley referring to when the new law goes into effect and referring to the controversial Tennessee lawman portrayed in the “Walking Tall” movie years ago.

Presley is forming a strike force of prosecutors, PSC staff and law enforcement to work on such cases.

Complaints of telemarketing calls and various types of phone scams continue to be among the biggest issues facing the three-member Public Service Commission, which Presley chairs. There are 1.6 million telephone numbers listed on the state’s no-call list. And there are more than 113,000 complaints relating to telemarketers pending before the PSC.

The commission can levy fines – up to $10,000 per violation – against telemarketing firms that violate state law.

“I would say it is conservative to say less than 10 percent of fines are actually ‘collectible’ Presley said. “Most (of the telemarketing firms) go out of business, and we seek civil judgment for non-payments.”

Recently Presley, Southern District Public Service Commissioner Sam Britton and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann held a news conference to announce other changes made during the 2019 session to the state’s Telephone Solicitation Act.

Under changes going into effect July 1, a charity that pays people to solicit donations must register with the Public Service Commission and adhere to the provisions of state law, such as not calling people on the do not call list. The charity and the telemarketing firms making the calls must register. Charities using volunteers do not have to register.

In addition, a change in the law makes spoofing illegal – where false numbers are used making it look as though the telemarketer is a local number when it is not. Another change will allow businesses to register on the do not call list.

Presley urged Mississippians to go to the PSC web site and sign up on the do not call list and to download the commission’s app that makes it easier to report complaints.

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