Government Cracking Down on Robocalls

Various federal and state agencies are enforcing existing laws while Congress scrambles to update them.

robot making phone call
“Phone Robot” by Mike Renlund is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Finally.

The US government announced a nationwide crackdown on illegal robocalls on Tuesday, targeting companies and individuals who have collectively placed over 1 billion unwanted calls for financial schemes and other services, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The crackdown involves nearly 100 cases, five of which are criminal enforcement actions. They were brought by the FTC, Justice Department, 15 states and a slew of local authorities.

It marks the latest effort by regulators to battle back the tide of unwanted and illegal calls from telemarketers and scammers.

Some of those targeted by the action were a major source of robocalls. Derek Jason Bartoli, a Florida man who allegedly developed, sold and used a form of software that allows millions of calls to be placed in quick succession, was responsible for 57 million calls to US phone numbers over six months in 2017, according to a federal complaint.

“By putting people like Derek Bartoli out of business, we are able to deprive the robocallers of the important tools of their trade,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, in a press conference Tuesday.

The joint action includes the states of Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

It comes as lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are preparing legislation that would expand the government’s power to limit illegal robocalls. On Tuesday, a House subcommittee is expected to consider the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act. The bill directs the Federal Communications Commission to flesh out its rules making clear that robocalls may only be made to consumers with their consent.

In the Senate, the TRACED Act would expand the FCC’s power to punish illegal robocallers by increasing the maximum fines that the agency can levy for each robocall and by extending the statute of limitations to three years, up from one.

—CNN, “US government announces nationwide crackdown on robocallers

This is a start, at least.

I would like to see harsher sentences imposed that go beyond fines. And, if it isn’t already, spoofing of phone numbers should be criminalized as a separate offense apart from the unsolicited calls.

The problem is certainly epidemic:

Robocalls have become a major concern for policymakers as Americans have increasingly been subjected to unwelcome cellphone interruptions and, in the worst cases, fraud.

Americans received 25.3 billion robocalls in the first half of the year, a 128% increase compared to the same time last year, according to the robocall analytics firm Hiya, which provided details of a forthcoming report to CNN on Tuesday. While not all robocalls are illegitimate — many schools, pharmacies, banks and other institutions rely on them to reach customers — the onslaught has discouraged some Americans from answering cellphone calls altogether, said Hiya.

The telecom industry recently received clearance from the FCC to begin blocking robocalls by default, using technology that can screen out unwanted calls much like spam filters send junk email to a separate folder.

Smith said stemming the flow of robocalls must involve a combination of new technologies, government intervention and consumers’ own behavior — hanging up on robocalls, switching on call blocking through wireless carriers and reporting robocalls to the FTC.

“We use those complaints to drive our law enforcement actions,” said Smith.

It seems both unreasonable and inefficient to ask individual phone customers to report calls to the FTC. Surely, the carriers have the ability to collect this information themselves? Ditto call blocking: it should be the default, turned off by customers who would prefer to receive unsolicited calls rather than risk missing wanted calls.

As it is, I leave my phone’s ringer switched off virtually all the time and only answer calls from people not in my contacts list if I’m expecting a call.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. As it is, I leave my phone’s ringer switched off virtually all the time and only answer calls from people not in my contacts list if I’m expecting a call.

    Same here. If they are a legitimate caller then they can leave a voice mail. When they don’t, I assume they’re robocalls (or misdialed numbers, which I still get from time to time)

  2. Kit says:

    As usual with these US-only problems, I’m afraid that there’s nothing to be done.

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    And, if it isn’t already, spoofing of phone numbers should be criminalized as a separate offense apart from the unsolicited calls.

    Fraudulent spoofing. If you ban spoofing in general, you’ll break every PBX in the country (they need to spoof the extension of the outgoing call so that if you call back you get the person who called you instead of the PBX interchange’s number).

  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    A total ban on spoofing would break VOIP too, since you’d get the number of the gateway instead of whoever actually called you.

  5. Teve says:

    @Kit:

    UK, Spain, Italy, France and Argentina were the countries with the most robocalls.

    robocalls surge to 85 billion globally

    The US is #6 in robocalls.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, right. I don’t even think of that sort of thing as “spoofing” since it’s done for precisely the opposite reason: to help the receiver correctly identify who it is that’s calling them.

  7. Kit says:

    @Teve:

    The US is #6 in robocalls.

    Details! In any case, nothing can be done. Nothing can ever be done.

    As for France, I’ve lived there on and off for perhaps ten of the past twenty five years, and never received a single robo call.

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Technically, the PBX and the scammer are doing exactly the same thing, the only difference being the intent of why they are doing it. So if the law doesn’t explictly include the intent requirement, it will either be too weak to stop the scammer or so strong as to also criminalize the PBX. This is a common problem with laws as congressmen frequently have no understanding of how the technology they’re trying to regulate actually works.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Technically, the PBX and the scammer are doing exactly the same thing, the only difference being the intent of why they are doing it. So if the law doesn’t explictly include the intent requirement, it will either be too weak to stop the scammer or so strong as to also criminalize the PBX.

    Right, I was agreeing with your point. The thing we want to ban is spoofing with an intent to deceive, not a common technological practice that’s often used for perfectly legitimate and desirable purposes.

    This is a common problem with laws as congressmen frequently have no understanding of how the technology they’re trying to regulate actually works.

    I think this is right, although it shouldn’t be. I don’t expect the average Congressman or Senator, most of whom are lawyers by training, to develop deep technical expertise, even if they sit on regulatory committees. But I do expect them to have expert staff and to get commentary from experts from both the executive branch and the private sector before enacting legislation. Alas, they sometimes fail at this basic mission.

  10. Teve says:

    I’ve got an Android One phone, and it’s fantastic, and I generally use the Google services when they’re not too bad, and Google calendar has come in very handy because it syncs with my laptop and my email, but I just read last week that there is a way scammers can actually put spam on your Google calendar.

    on YouTube now not only do you have to click to avoid multiple ads per video, while you’re trying to watch a video as many as 5 pop-ups will appear to try to suggest you watch a different video.

    Our computers are a thousand times faster than they were two decades ago, but web pages load slower because they now have dozens of megabytes of ads and ad trackers. Back in the year 2000 I had BeOS running on a Pentium 2 that would play mp3s faster than my new multicore Lenovo.

    We humans have this terrible trait where we invent the most amazing technology, then allow business people to make it as shitty as they possibly can right up to the edge of where we would quit using it.

  11. Joe says:

    Surely, the carriers have the ability to collect this information themselves?

    Actual, they don’t currently and the technology they are developing/implementing will only work on SIP (Internet-based) calls, not on TDM (plain old telephone service calls). The SIP technology should get rolled out in about a year.

  12. Hal_10000 says:

    As a free-market disciple who hates the government crack down on business practices, I have to say … um, good. Burn ’em all. Robocalls are the tech equivalent of someone standing in your yard, screaming about timeshares. Especially crack down on those who pretend to be the IRS or someone in order to scam old people out of their money.

  13. SKI says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Easy fix that isn’t intent based (aka messy to prosecute): Can only spoof a number you own or have authority to use.

  14. Teve says:

    @SKI: now I just have to get some angel investor capital to secure a legit phone number in all 317 area codes, which I can then lease out for authorized spoof use to every telemarketing company in the world. 😛

  15. Joe says:

    @SKI:
    And this is how Teve demonstrates that “easy fixes” usually aren’t.

  16. SKI says:

    @Teve: And then those numbers gets blocked by everyone pretty much immediately. The current scammers only work because they (a) are someone else’s real numbers and (b) they constantly change.

    @Joe: And this is how I demonstrate that the usual quick objections usually aren’t valid. 🙂

  17. Teve says:

    Yeah but the blocking happened slowly over weeks and months, long after I sold the telemarketing companies the licenses. Sucks to be them 😀

  18. Teve says:

    Right now the carriers aren’t blocking numbers they know are spam calls. I’m guessing this based on the fact that 80% of the dozen robocalls I get a day get labeled “incoming suspected spam call”, but the carrier still puts them through. What’s up with that?

  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Teve:

    They’re common carriers, so under federal law they’re not currently allowed to block them, even if they suspect they’re spam.

  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Teve:

    We humans have this terrible trait where we invent the most amazing technology, then allow business people to make it as shitty as they possibly can right up to the edge of where we would quit using it.

    Because the other alternative is to pay for things, which people hate even more than abusive advertising.

  21. Teve says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I agree that that’s part of the answer, but sometimes it’s structural and people aren’t given the choice. Facebook can’t be making any significant amount of money off me since I have never ever clicked on a Facebook ad, and often use an extension called FB Purity to block their ads, so they could offer me the use of Facebook for five bucks a month in exchange for not ever tracking me, but they won’t.

    The whole point of antitrust law, which worked okay until Bork and company wrecked it, is that businesses can use their power to remove choice from consumers. Amusingly, conservative / libertarians used to react to that situation by saying “oh yeah well that’s the Free Market, if you don’t like that, then start your own business that acts differently,” which lasted until the instant some conservatives got banned on Facebook, and they switched to howling that it was the new public square and they should be regulated and sued… 🙂

  22. Teve says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’ve read a few confusing Wired articles about possible new laws and regulations with regard to robocalls and the fcc, but frankly the result is not a clear picture in my head. I wonder if the carriers will get the ability or be required to block those soon.

  23. Joe says:

    @Teve: Hmmm, if only someone had commented on that. (@Joe)

  24. MarkedMan says:

    I’m against the death penalty for moral reasons. On the other hand…

  25. Teve says:

    @Joe: I saw what you wrote and thanks for writing it but I don’t know what kind of problems you can have just from TDM and I don’t know how effective STIR/SHAKEN is going to be, and how this interacts with the do not call list, and whether carriers will be aggressive or reluctant, the whole thing is a big pile of multiply-interacting moving parts and I don’t have a clue how it’s going to shake out.

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    (they need to spoof the extension of the outgoing call so that if you call back you get the person who called you instead of the PBX interchange’s number).

    I think I understand what you are saying here except that in my case whenever I get a call from that type of situation if I just call back the number that was on my ID, I only get the main operator’s line. (In the case of one high school, I only get the telephone voice mail tree.) I never get the person who actually called.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “…so they could offer me the use of Facebook for five bucks a month in exchange for not ever tracking me, but they won’t.”
    Is it possible that tracking you pays more than $5/mo? I suspect that most of the time our “I don’t understand why the internet/cable company/whoever doesn’t just…” things are because we imagine we’d be compensating them at par, but wouldn’t be.

  28. Teve says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: on my phone I can’t run extensions and scripts but on my laptop I can and it’s all kindsa ad and tracker blocking, one extension specifically written for fb. If they’re making more than a few bucks per month on me, then advertisers are wasting vast amounts of dollars.

    But that’s not why they don’t give you a private option, Facebook doesn’t give you a private option because they’re a monopoly in that space and they don’t have to give a shit what you want. Over a year ago they told people that they would be offering a button that let you delete your entire history from Facebook. Have you seen that button? No. Nobody has. It was just a lie to get people off their backs. They don’t give a shit about anything except making the most money off your personal info that they possibly can.

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “…advertisers are wasting vast amounts of dollars.”
    The possibility that advertisers are wasting vast sums would not surprise me at all. “Costs of doing business” are deductible and ya gotta do something with the surplus capital or that durn gubmint gonna take it all ‘way fum yo.

    I have no problem believing that the online world is chock full of evil selfish predators either, you understand. I think of it more as a “both and” than an “either or.”

    ETA: Which is why I don’t do facebook. I try to keep my presence on the web small. Last time I googled my name, the closest I got to me was news that the daughter of one of my cousins was accepted into Georgetown Law (LLD) and accepted to join JAG. Congratulations cuz!

  30. Teve says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I saw an estimate over at Mother Jones that all internet companies put together made about $200 per American from ads last year. Google Amazon Twitter Microsoft Instagram (also fb) Netflix Yahoo YouTube Reddit imgur eBay Snapchat etc. Say Facebook gets a quarter of the entire amount, that’s fifty bucks a year, that’s $4.17/mo for violating the shit out of your privacy and harassing you as much as possible with ads. Probly less off me because of the aforementioned countermeasures. And they won’t even give me the option of paying $5/mo for zero harassment? Because they don’t give a fuck, they don’t have to, which explains why I’m seeing tech journalists and even people like a co-founder of Facebook saying that that fucking company needs to be broken up.

    Kara Swisher makes the point that there hasn’t been a significant new social media company emerge in 8 years, there’s virtually no competition in the space now, and that’s bad for any market.

  31. Mister Bluster says:

    It took nine months for the required nine states to ratify the United States Constitution before it was adopted in June of 1788.
    If they would have had robo calls it would have only taken nine weeks.

    Unless they were hacked by the Tories.

  32. Tyrell says:

    I have received several of the phony IRS scam calls saying that I was under arrest and telling me they were authorized agents who could negotiate a deal. I have also received scam calls from people claiming to be with Microsoft and that there is a serious virus on my computer that only they can remove.
    Yes, the Robocalls are irritating. We receive several a week, inspite of putting our number on the state’s 800 no call list. But now many companies have gone around that and use local numbers so that it looks like it is a local person or business. Most are refinance companies, health insurance companies, or medicare supplement companies. And if you look up new car information, be prepared for emails, texts, and calls galore.
    What is really amazing is that we can now ride by some store and a few minutes later they call us to announce their big deals. I am convinced from some calls that they now are somehow listening to our conversations!
    Watch the “Outer Limits” episode “OBIT”, about a computer that can read peoples’ minds.