For decades, telemarketing robocalls have proven to be an unprecedented annoyance to American consumers. As call spoofing tech has gotten cheaper and easier to use, a decade of wireless carrier apathy mixed with inconsistent government enforcement has left the United States perpetually behind in the battle to thwart the scam and marketing assault. And despite endless government initiatives, updated regulations and a laundry list of promises from industry, the problem is worse than ever.
Data compiled by the YouMail Robocall Index indicates that 3.4 billion robocalls were placed nationwide in April 2018, or roughly 10.4 calls per person affected. The report notes that AT&T users are robocalled the most frequently, averaging of 15.1 robocalls per person per month, followed by T-Mobile users with 14.8 robocalls each. The company also tracked robocalls by the type of scam being pushed, noting that mortgage interest rate scams, credit card scams, student loan scams, business loan scams and IRS scams were the top five most common. And they’re all getting worse. "There was a big surge in scam calls in March, with the top three financial scams estimated to reach a combined 276.4 million calls alone, up a full 33% from 207.4 million in February," YouMail notes. "In addition, IRS-related scam calls nearly doubled in March from February, making it the 5th most common scam, and Home Security Scams were up over four times, leaping into 9th place." Data released by the FTC shows that there were 4.5 million consumer complaints about robocalls in 2017, a dramatic increase from the 3.4 million consumer complaints government received the year before. The surge in annoying calls comes despite repeated, highly-publicized efforts by government agencies to tackle the problem. In 2015, the FCC passed new rules expanding the ability of telecommunication companies to block robocalls and spam messages at the request of customers. And in 2016, the agency created a “robocalling strike force” tasked with crafting solutions for the problem. Rules were expanded again in 2017 to take aim at the practice of caller ID spoofing. Earlier this month, the FCC announced that the agency had levied a record $120 million fine against a Florida man, Adrian Abramovich, for making almost 100 million spoofed robocalls over three months. "The evidence indicates that Abramovich is the perpetrator of one of the largest—and most dangerous—illegal robocalling campaigns that the Commission has ever investigated," the FCC said in its complaint.
Current FCC boss Ajit Pai has stated repeatedly that ending the “scourge” of robocalls is the agency’s “top consumer protection priority.” So why is the problem getting worse?
For one, inexpensive, internet-routed calling and spoofing options have easily outpaced both technical and legal solutions to the problem, leaving regulators constantly trying to keep up from behind. Inherently flimsy security standards embedded in most caller ID systems also make spoofing relatively trivial.
But another problem is that while regulators are quick to take aim at smaller robocallers that make for easy enforcement targets, they often turn a blind eye toward consistent enforcement when it comes to larger, more politically-potent companies. And when they do act, well-funded lawyers ensure the glacial application of justice, if justice arrives at all. Charter Spectrum, for example, has faced two different lawsuits in recent years over robocalling users to upsell cable TV bundles. Dish Network was also recently ordered to pay $280 million in penalties for violating Do Not Call laws, but only after eight long years of litigation.
Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, recently testified before the Senate Commerce Committee noting that just two of the top 20 robocallers in the United States were actually scammers.
“If your phone is ringing all the time and it’s a debt collector trying to collect either a debt from you or a debt that someone else owes, and they won’t stop when you ask them to stop … that’s a privacy issue that the FCC should be addressing,” Saunders recently told Slate. “We’ve raised that with them, but they’re still talking about scams.” The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, passed in 1991, dictates that autodialing robocallers must have consumer consent to contact you while providing working opt out tools. Yet student loan collectors in particular are routinely allowed to tap dance around the law. A number of companies have petitioned the FCC to further exempt themselves from daily robocall limits. Wireless carriers like AT&T have long been criticized for not doing enough to thwart the calls. In part because back when carriers used to bill calls by the minute, any calls conducted over their network (whether marketing or a scam) made them money. As unlimited voice became standard that shifted, though many were still resistant to spending money to help solve the problem. Back in 2016, a campaign from Consumers Union managed to collect more than 600,000 signatures in an attempt to ramp up pressure on historically-apathetic companies, consistently singling out AT&T as one of the more apathetic carriers. AT&T has a history of turning a blind eye to various types of fraud when the company gets a cut of the proceeds, and at one point responded to allegations of robocall apathy by falsely claiming the government prevented it from doing more. AT&T was subsequently put in charge of the FCC’s robocall strike force by former agency boss Tom Wheeler. The criticism and public pressure has also forced AT&T to launch creatively-named services like AT&T Call Protect, which provides eligible AT&T customers with an additional layer of automatic fraud blocking and suspected scam warnings.
Carrier members of that task force have also been testing technologies like SHAKEN and STIR, which will ultimately allow carriers to digitally sign off on caller ID data using cryptographic keys. And while Canadian regulator the CRTC recently approved new rules requiring such tech be deployed early next year, the US FCC has yet to formally mandate their usage. The robocall problem persists thanks to the inexpensive ease of spoofing technology and regulatory action that’s often inconsistently applied. As a result, the onus still tends to rest on the shoulder of consumers to use a variety of different technical services that are sometimes free (Hiya) or have a smaller monthly charge (Robokiller or Nomorobo). And while there’s some promising additional tech on the horizon that could help reduce some of the annoyance, you should probably expect the noxious robocall menace to get a little bit worse before it gets better.