Robocalls – unwanted, recorded phone messages – are the scourge of modern America, and a problem that is seemingly only getting worse. Not only that, but the Coronavirus has given new impetus to a wave of calls purporting to be regarding pandemic-related stimulus checks, other payouts, and cures and fixes for the disease.
Call blocking service YouMail reports that the US was hit with 58.5 billion robocalls in 2019, an increase of 22% from the 47.8 billion received in 2018. In October last year, YouMail reported that a single originator may have placed an estimated 288 million robocalls about health insurance.
How to hang up forever
There is no panacea for robocallers, but while the TRACED Act will take time to implement across all agencies and phone providers, there is hope.
Here’s a checklist of what you can do to help stem the flow of unwanted calls.
- Register your business landline / home landline with the FNC’s Do Not Call service at donotcall.gov or by calling 1-888-382-1222. It’s worth double checking your numbers are actually logged here. And remember, all the robocallers simply left the US to circumvent the DNC laws.
- Keep your phone software updated. Apple added a feature to iOS 13 that lets you prevent unknown callers. Google has expanded its Call Screen feature to route suspected spam calls to Google Assistant before your phone even rings. The imminent launch of Android 11 will see expanded robocall identification and prevention features.
- Check with your provider. All four major wireless carriers now offer call blocking features. Search for AT&T’s Call Protect, Verizon’s Call Filter, T-Mobile’s Scam Shield and Sprint’s Call Screener
- Check out third party apps. You are free to choose call blocking from your provider, but there are a number of easy to use and effective apps out there – such as those mentioned in this article like Hiya, YouMail, along with Nomorobo and RoboKiller. The Firewall app takes it a step further and creates a ‘whitelist’ for you.
According to the FCC, simple steps you can take to help reduce robocalls include:
- Don’t answer calls from blocked or unknown numbers or from numbers you don’t recognize.
- Don’t assume an incoming call is from a local number just because it looks like it is – spoofing is all too common.
- Don’t respond to any questions that can be answered with a “Yes.”
- If someone calls you and claims to be with XYZ company, hang up and call the company yourself. Use the company’s website to find an official number.
- If you do answer a call and hear a recording such as, “Hello, can you hear me?” just hang up.
Tips on reducing the risk of scam robocalls include:
- Nobody from the federal government will ever call asking for bank account details, social security numbers or other personal information
- There are currently no known cures or preventative treatments for COVID-19. Never give credit card or checking account information to anyone claiming to sell Coronavirus tests or remedies
Anti-phone spam company Hiya reported seeing an 844% rise in phone scams tied to US government stimulus checks. Based on its analysis of more than 13 billion calls per month, Hiya data showed these scams increased 844% from the week of March 16, when the scams first appeared, to the week of March 23.
Recent reporting has shown that on a daily basis, bad actors are placing an estimated one million suspicious calls pertaining to coronavirus, many of which relay deceptive promises of non-existent testing services.
Hospitals and vital infrastructure providers have actually reported having their phone systems overwhelmed by robocallers – creating a dangerous, life-threatening scenario. On April 30, 2018, for example, Tufts Medical Center administrators registered more than 4,500 calls between about 9:30 and 11:30 a.m.
And, of course, thanks to spoofing, robocallers can take on numbers the same as, or similar to, local health organizations. People are likely to answer those calls out of fear that a loved one is in danger.
These calls cost just pennies to unscrupulous operators, but often reap rewards which more often than not come from the most elderly and vulnerable members of society, who are most likely to fall for legitimate-seeming scam calls.
But wait! What? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says this is illegal, right? As stated on its consumer-facing website: “If you receive a robocall trying to sell you something (and you haven’t given the caller your written permission), it’s an illegal call. You should hang up. Then, file a complaint with the FTC and the National Do Not Call Registry.”
And true enough, it is illegal. Register your number to the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry, and you should be able to sit back and enjoy the silence of a phone line unfettered by spam. And the FTC is proud of its “aggressive legal action” to make sure telemarketers abide by its Registry. To date, the Commission has brought 148 enforcement actions against companies and telemarketers for Do Not Call, abandoned call, robocall and Registry violations. Some 140 of these FTC enforcement actions have been resolved, and in those cases the agency has recovered more than $52 million in civil penalties and $107 million in redress or disgorgement.
18,000 years of time wasting calls per annum
So what went wrong? After 17 years of the DNC Registry, how come we’re receiving calls that amount to wasting the equivalent of 18,000 years of our time each year – if each call on average wastes ten seconds of our time?
Lois Greisman, Associate Director of the Division of Marketing Practices, Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, speaking before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation back in 2018, summarised the issue in one sentence: “The Registry, which includes more than 229 million active telephone numbers, has been tremendously successful in protecting consumers’ privacy from unwanted calls by the thousands of legitimate telemarketers who subscribe to the Registry each year. Subsequently, changes in technology led to a new source of immense frustration—the blasting of prerecorded messages that primarily rely on Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) technology.”
Technology – as is often the case – has created an enormous, lucrative and seemingly unstoppable loophole in the US domestic law that is not only being blatantly circumvented, but growing exponentially.
And the auto-dial technology employed is efficient and effective. A computer program uses an internet connection to ring thousands of lines simultaneously at less than a penny per call. While sometimes pulling numbers legally from public databases, it also rings numbers that are more dubiously acquired, by purchasing or guessing.
Neighborhood spoofing, for example, manipulates caller ID to show a local area code, sparking your interest.
The FTC’s Gresiman goes on to say: “Illegal robocalls remain a significant consumer protection problem because they repeatedly disturb consumers’ privacy and frequently use fraud and deception to pitch goods and services, leading to significant economic harm. Illegal robocalls are also frequently used by criminal impostors posing as trusted officials or companies.”
No silver bullet
Last year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler urged major companies to take new action to block robocalls, saying: “This scourge must stop. The bad guys are beating the good guys with technology.”
AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson, talking to a group of concerned tech and telco companies alongside Wheeler and the FCC, said: “Robocallers are a formidable adversary, notoriously hard to stop. We have to come out of this with a comprehensive play book for all of us to go execute. We have calls that are perfectly legal, but unwanted, like telemarketers and public opinion surveyors. At the other end of the spectrum, we have millions of calls that are blatantly illegal.”
Joan Marsh, AT&T vice president of federal regulatory issues, called it how it is: “We have been wrangling with this problem long enough to know there is no silver bullet.”
What’s clear is that the robocallers, spammers, criminals if you will, are outpacing the telcos with their technology, their cunning, and their evil hackery.
While the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission have secured record fines against these pernicious robocallers, they sometimes fail to collect on those penalties, according to lawmakers, legal experts and public reports, with the WSJ reporting in early 2019 that while the FCC has fined robocallers $208 million, at that time it had only collected $6,790, grating against the FTC’s figures above.
As AT&T and Verizon implement anti-robocall technology that can help people spot fake numbers in real time, the regulators are also redoubling their efforts: In July 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA).
But the issue before the highest US court was less about the original law and more about the exception added in 2015 which allowed robocalls intended to collect outstanding debt owed to the government. While this exception was designed to aid the recovery of more than $4.2 trillion in debt, 60 million Americans have since been exposed to unlimited calls to collect.
The court ruled to throw out the 2015 exception, while keeping the original TCPA intact.
End robocall scams once and for all
Speaking about the ruling, a YouMail spokesman said: “For our interests — and those of the American public — the real issue the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches should be debating is not whether it can harass its citizens over debt or contributions, but how to end robocall scams once and for all.”
While criticisms aimed squarely at federal inactivity and a seeming inability to take action against the rise of the robocaller, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., together with a group of committee colleagues managed to push the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act through the House of Representatives with a landslide 429-3 votes.
In a statement to the House in July 2019, they said: “Today, the House of Representatives voted to restore Americans’ confidence in the telephone system and put consumers back in charge of their phones. We’re proud of the strong support our bipartisan Stopping Bad Robocalls Act received…and look forward to working with our colleagues in the Senate to produce a bill that the President can sign into law. The American people are counting on us to help end the robocall epidemic, and we will deliver for them.”
At the time of the Bill’s passing, Pallone also said in a Tweet: “This is important legislation because unlawful robocalls are not only a nuisance – they are also undermining our entire phone system and consumer safety.”
You’ve been TRACED
Such is the weight of the issue that by December 31, the normally glacial rate at which US laws are passed was turned on its head, as elements of the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act were incorporated into the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED) which was enacted after being signed by the President.
The legislation addresses the problem from a number of angles. It gives the FCC greater powers to pursue robocall scammers, for greater fines and for longer time periods – up to four years, in some cases.
TRACED enables stronger Justice Department criminal prosecution of unlawful robocalls by requiring the FCC to provide the DOJ with evidence of criminal robocall violations, and it directs the Justice Department to launch a working group focused on prosecuting robocallers.
The new law also requires carriers to eventually implement new technologies to authenticate caller-ID information, preventing call spoofing – at no additional line-item cost to consumers.
The FCC says Caller ID authentication aims to combat illegal caller ID spoofing. Such a system is critical in eroding the ability of callers to illegally spoof a caller ID, which scammers use to trick people into answering their phones when they shouldn’t.
Shaken or stirred?
This caller ID authentication, known as STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs), should greatly help accuracy of ID and allow voice service providers to provide helpful information to their consumers about which calls to answer.
The bill also includes provisions to specifically protect hospitals from potentially phone-system overwhelming robocall attacks.
While the new law has received support and praise, with changes to the robocall landscape expected to come into effect in the next year; many feel it doesn’t go far enough.
Telcos should offer free call blocking services. There is also the argument that the big telcos know exactly who the telemarketing companies are – they know who they are billing – and are making large amounts of profit from actually assisting (or maybe turning a blind eye to) blatant robocalling services. Even the companies offering paid-for call blocking apps are reaping rich rewards from our broken phone system.
While robocallers have become more sophisticated and pervasive even in the face of heightened vigilance by government and industry, industry and government action can’t come fast enough. At least some action is better than none, as evidenced by the TRACED act.
As Margot Saunders, writing at TheHill puts it: “Hanging up on robocallers once and for all means strengthening and clarifying the rules to protect consumers and hold bad actors accountable.”