There Is No Escape From America’s Robocall Hell

Every single day Americans receive more than 131 million annoying robocalls, or roughly 5.5 million robocalls an hour. And while a new FCC proposal takes helpful aim at the obnoxious menace, recent Supreme Court rulings, corporate lobbying, and the complexity of the problem means it’s not getting significantly better anytime soon.

The FCC this week unveiled its latest attempt to address the robocall scourge after a parade of past agency efforts failed to make a dent in the problem.

New FCC rules mean phone companies must block traffic from phone companies that fail to implement cryptography-based identity authentication systems like STIR (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited) and SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs). Such systems help thwart robocallers hiding their identities and real numbers using spoofing technology.

The new FCC announcement proposes expanding those restrictions to “gateway providers” that link overseas callers to U.S. phone networks, and requires phone companies to document their robocall-fighting efforts via the FCC’s Robocall Mitigation Database. But it’s just a drop in the bucket of addressing the broader problem, experts say.

“The plan as-is consists of good ideas, but I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference in the next couple of years,” Brad Reaves, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at NC State University told Motherboard.

The proposal is just a proposal for now, and “gateway providers” still aren’t covered by existing rules. Neither are smaller providers with less than 100,000 customers, who’ve been exempted from the rules until 2023. “These two types are the providers that most in the industry believe are serving the robocallers,” he said.

But our failure to police robocalls goes beyond the technical. And it stems from our failure to understand the problem is far bigger than just bogus car warranty scams.

In addition to outright scams, there’s also corporate telemarketers that aren’t technically scammers, but often behave just like them. There’s also unwanted robocallers that are annoying but legal, such as debt collectors or charitable foundations looking for donations. Then there’s the legal robocalls we do want, like doctor or pharmacy reminders.

“When we think about these problem robocalls, the way to address the first three has to be cognizant of allowing the fourth,” Margot Saunders, Senior Counsel to the National Consumer Law Center, told Motherboard in a phone interview.

Saunders has testified several times before Congress on robocalls, and is usually quick to highlight how the problem goes well beyond just scammers. She told Motherboard that while the FCC has been aggressive in combating some aspects of the problem, its authority to do so has been greatly constrained by existing law and recent Supreme Court rulings.

“The rules were, until April 1st of this year, that our cellphones were protected not only from pre-recorded calls, but unwanted texts, and unwanted live calls made by an autodialer,” Saunders said, referring to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

But in April a Supreme Court ruling (Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid) effectively nullified the TCPA’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones without your consent. So while there are growing but sometimes inconsistent restrictions on pre-recorded robocalls, annoying spam texts and many live calls made with auto dialers remain perfectly legal.

“A lot of the live calls that are survey calls and debt collection calls to cell phones that are so annoying to people are made with automated dialers,” Saunders said. “There is at the moment no way of controlling those calls unless the called party individually blocks the caller.”

With its policing of “legit” telemarketing calls boxed in by law, the FCC has focused primarily on scam calls. And for good reason; FTC data indicates U.S. consumers lose an estimated $224 million every year just to government imposter scams alone, most of which are conducted over the phone.

But the sometimes exclusive focus on combating scam robocalls also means there’s an awful lot of unwanted calls—deemed “legitimate” under U.S. law and regulations—that still wind up annoying you in the middle of dinner. 

“It’s really very difficult to tell the difference between what is a legitimate telemarketing call and what is a scam call,” Saunders said. “Legitimate telemarketers use pretty scammy, scummy ways of supposedly complying with the law of consent.”

Saunders’ Congressional testimony has highlighted how scammers often comprise the minority of overall robocalls. Many are debt collectors working for banks or telecom providers, who relentlessly harass consumers they know can’t pay their bills. Efforts to rein in those types of calls have often taken a backseat thanks to lobbying pressure.

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Margot Saunders 2018 Congressional testimony

Shoring up existing robocall rules means relying on a Congress that’s heavily lobbied by companies and industries that aren’t keen on stricter rules. Meanwhile, the government’s history of robocall fine collection also leaves something to be desired.

While the FCC often makes headlines for issuing “record” robocall fines, the vast majority of those fines are never collected. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation found that the FCC has collected just $6,790 of the $208 million in robocall fines imposed since 2015. Of the $1.5 billion in robocall fines issued by the FTC since 2004, the agency collected just $121 million.

Some of that is thanks to the untraceable nature of scammers using spoofed phone numbers and fake identities. Some of it’s because large corporations have actively lobbied for policy solutions that keep the focus on outright scams. But it’s also because U.S. regulators often lack the staff and resources to police corporate America, something that’s often by design.

“The biggest issue is that regulators—including FTC and FCC—don’t have the manpower or budget to pursue even a fraction of illegal robocallers,” Reaves said. “Even if they had the

technical means to identify every robocaller, they wouldn’t have the ability to take action against them.”

That’s not to say the FCC’s latest efforts aren’t helping. YouMail, a robocall-blocking service, notes there was an 8.6 percent dip in robocalls thanks to adoption of SHAKEN/STIR authentication tech since June. But whether that will be a permanent improvement is unknown, and the overall problem remains a tidal wave—with U.S. consumers collectively receiving 1,515 robocalls every single second throughout the month of August.

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