Robocall Blocker

Consumers and the private sector can fight robocalls better than government can | Opinion

“We have been trying to reach you regarding your car’s extended warranty.”

In an age of great political partisanship, robocalls vex American consumers of all political persuasions. What more can be done to fight this nuisance? The Federal Communications Commission and consumers alike can take steps.

Since the early 2010s, computerized phone calls have grown significantly in volume. In 2020, Americans received a total of 45.9 billion robocalls; that’s expected to increase to 51 billion by the end of this year. Although many robocalls are legal, a significant part of them are illegal because they intend to defraud and scam customers.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, criminals used a law-enforcement robocall scheme to scam an oncology nurse in her 60s. Believing that the FBI was calling her, she transferred almost $340,000 — her life’s savings — to a bank account that belonged to criminals. As her experience suggests, criminals continue to use robocalls to defraud people.

The FCC rightly has made fighting illegal robocalls a priority, but it has failed to stem the rise in calls. The FCC faces two main challenges:

First, many robocalls are legitimate — like the use of pre-recorded messaging from local authorities and universities in the event of a hurricane, shooting or other life-threatening emergencies. It is faster and more cost-effective to send pre-recorded warning messages in such crises instead of human operators calling each consumer individually.

Many small businesses also use recorded messages for legitimate business purposes, such as appointment and prescription-drug reminders. As a result, banning robocalls altogether is not a practical policy option.

Second, illegal robocalls mostly use “spoofing” technology, which allows a potential scammer to disguise the original phone number and make it appear as though the call had originated from law-enforcement agencies or financial institutions. However, spoofing has important legitimate uses. For example, hospitals, psychologists and domestic-abuse counselors use spoofing to hide patients’ and doctors’ identities. Therefore, banning spoofing altogether is not a feasible option for the FCC, either. Instead, the FCC must find a way to allow legal spoofing while reducing the illegal variety.

Congress and federal agencies already target illegal robocalls. In 1991, Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which imposed a penalty of up to $1,500 per call. Although the FCC penalizes many small businesses under the TCPA for marketing calls in good faith, the TCPA has been unable to stop robocalls. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission began a “Do Not Call” Registry, where consumers can enter their number to opt out of telemarketing calls. But this registry was also not successful, and robocalls have proliferated since then.

However, a new technology might help companies better fight robocalls. This technology — called the “STIR/Shaken” framework — allows telecommunications companies to authenticate the origin of a given call and alert users when a possible call might be spam.

In 2019, the FCC required large telecommunications companies to adopt this technology by June 2021. However, small telecommunications companies have until June 2023, a loophole that’s allowing the robocall problem to continue. Smaller companies played an outsized role in originating robocalls. Potential criminals can evade the regulations by targeting smaller telecommunications companies that have not yet adopted this technology.

A group of attorneys general has recently urged the FCC to shorten the time frame for adopting the technology. A shorter time frame would help fix the current loophole and help businesses and consumers use telecommunications networks without fearing spam and fraud. Furthermore, making call sources more transparent will allow small businesses to use legitimate pre-recorded messages without being blocked by wary consumers and incorrectly penalized by the FCC.

Finally, consumers also need to be more proactive in protecting themselves against fraud and spam calls. As major telecommunications companies offer new spam-detection services, consumers need to be more savvy about using such services.

For example, T-Mobile — which uses the STIR/Shaken framework — flags potential spam calls for free while also offering a premium call-block service. Verizon blocks the most obvious spam calls and offers consumers a paid app for blocking spam calls and performing reverse-number lookup.

As consumers become more aware of these services, they can choose cellphone subscriptions based on their spam-call policies. Ultimately, competition between different telecoms companies in providing better spam detection services will be much more effective than a top-down approach in blocking scam calls.

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