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How the FCC Is Working to Kill Robocalls

by Dennis Fisher on Wednesday July 26, 2017

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As difficult as it can be to believe, sometimes things actually get done in Washington. It’s not often, and many times the actual progress that does happen can go unnoticed because it’s hidden under layers of bureaucracy and mountains of government-speak. The FCC right now is on the verge of making a change that fits all of those descriptions but could make a significant difference for many consumers.

For a couple of years now, the FCC and the FTC both have been looking for ways to do something about the robocall problem. Telemarketing operations use robocalls as a cheap and easy way to reach millions of people very quickly. They’re usually offering things like Caribbean vacations, extended auto warranties, or the chance to boost your Google rankings. The calls often are made using auto-dialing software and more and more of them these days also include caller ID spoofing, a technique that’s used to trick users into thinking the calls are from trusted numbers.

The vast majority of these robocalls are illegal. Unless you’ve given the caller permission to make these calls to you, the calls are against the law in most cases. The FTC has undertaken a series of actions against illegal robocall operations, including proposing a record $120 million fine for a Florida man that the commission says made several hundred million robocalls, some of which disrupted a medical paging service. In another move, the FTC cracked down on a pair of men who it said were making hundreds of millions of illegal robocalls each month.

For its part, the FCC is working on the problem through the policy channel. The commission has proposed a new rule that could go a long way toward stopping a large percentage of the illegal robocalls that flood phone lines right now. The proposed rule would allow carriers to block some robocalls at the network level, something that they are not legally able to do right now.

“Proposes to adopt rules that providers may block spoofed robocalls when the subscriber to a particular telephone number requests that calls originating from that number be blocked (sometimes called ‘DoNot-Originate’),” the FCC’s proposed rule says.

In practice, what this change would do is stop those annoying and dangerous calls from ever reaching consumers. When a carrier identifies a call that’s using a spoofed caller ID signal — one that pretends to be from a government agency, for example — the carrier would have the authority to block it. There are a number of apps and features offered by both providers and third parties that let customers block numbers individually, but blocking these calls at the network level is more efficient and more effective. The way that the carriers would do this is through the use of a list of numbers that should never be used to make outgoing calls, such as toll-free numbers owned by the IRS.

“One particularly pernicious category of robocalls is spoofed robocalls — i.e., robocalls where the caller ID is faked, hiding the caller’s true identity. Fraudsters bombard consumers’ phones at all hours of the day with spoofed robocalls, which in some cases lure consumers into scams (e.g., when a caller claims to be collecting money owed to the Internal Revenue Service) or lead to identity theft,” the FCC said in the notice of the proposed rule.

This change would be a huge leap forward in the fight against fraud and robocalls. The Do Not Call registry has been around for 14 years and it has been effective, as far as it goes. Legitimate companies that follow the rules generally don’t call numbers on the list. But illegal robocall operators aren’t so concerned with all those rules, so they don’t really mind calling those numbers.

The FCC’s proposed Do Not Originate list approaches the problem from the other direction, ensuring that these illegal calls never go anywhere. The proposal has received support from a number of consumer groups, as well as from the FTC. It could mean a significant change in the volume of garbage calls we all receive and take away one of the major avenues that fraudsters use right now.

Tags:  Policy

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