Have you ever received a phone call from an unknown but local phone number? Chances are you have, most everyone of us has, and when you answered the call you were greeted with silence or some pre-recorded message. After a few awkward seconds and repeating yourself to be removed the list, you hang up frustrated by another robot calling your phone. What do they really want, and why don’t they ever stop calling?
Thanks to a recent staff report released by the FCC this past February, we now know that these robocalls have been targeted by the multiple federal agencies to stop the harassment consumers are receiving. The report focuses both on the progress made in the fight against illegal robocalls and the challenges still facing the government, industry, and consumers in combating them.
The ability to reach a large number of people quickly using few resources makes robocalling attractive to those who wish to hound consumers. While there are no official nationwide statistics, private companies have provided estimates of the scale of the problem. Hiya—a company which provides call screening and blocking for smartphones—estimates that over 26 billion robocalls were made last year to cell phones. Robocall blocking service YouMail believes robocalling is on the rise, estimating that the number of robocalls has increased from 29 billion in 2016 up to almost 48 billion in 2018.
Fortunately for consumers, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), limits the use of automatic dialing systems, prerecorded voice messages, and unsolicited text messages. Passed in 1991, the TCPA allows for damages ranging from $500.00 – $1,500.00 per call or text. In describing the importance of the TCPA, Senator Hollings, the TCPA’s sponsor, said, “I echo Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who wrote 100 years ago that ‘the right to be left alone is the most comprehensive of rights and the one most valued by civilized man.’”
While unwanted or annoying calls are a frequent topic of consumer complaints, the report mentions that defining the term “robocall” can be problematic since it covers a wide variety of call types. Many of these calls are legitimate, such as automated calls from schools, pharmacies, or medical offices. It can be challenging to draw the line between illegal and legal robocalls.
That being said, measures are being put in place to combat illegal robocalls. In a break with earlier policy where voice service providers were rarely able to block phone calls, in 2017 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allowed service providers to begin blocking Do Not Originate (DNO) calls, or calls which pretend to be from a different number (“spoofing”). In 2018, the Commission further allowed wireless service providers to block robotexts and implement anti-spam features to stop such texts.
In November 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to voice service providers demanding that, by the end of 2019, they implement a call authentication system known as SHAKEN/STIR which identifies spoofed numbers. While these service providers confirmed their commitment to this goal in their responses, they stressed the complexity of the issue and the difficulty of implementation.
In addition to protective measures, legal action is being taken against those responsible for illegal robocall operations. Between 2010 and 2018, the Commission imposed or proposed forfeitures amounting to over $245 million against those who may have violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) or the Truth in Caller ID Act. One individual alone was found to be responsible for 96 million illegal robocalls made in a three-month timeframe.
The FTC, meanwhile, has completed 121 enforcement actions against Do Not Call Registry, robocall, and abandoned call violations. The FTC has received $71 million through legal action and more than $50 million in penalties from these actions. In 2017, a judgment against the Dish Network led to a $168 million penalty for making millions of illegal calls.
Despite this progress, challenges remain. Often, robocallers are not based in the United States, making investigations difficult without the cooperation of foreign entities, including governments. Further, Illegal robocallers primarily use voice over internet protocol (VoIP). Providers of such services rarely keep records of the calls placed using their system, making tracing calls almost impossible. Finally, in many cases, potential violators of the TCPA must be notified of possible action against them before the Commission can begin proceedings. This enables offenders to reincorporate under a new business name, thus avoiding detection.
Despite these challenges, the Commission remains committed to eliminating what Chairman Pai has referred to as the “scourge” of illegal robocalls. As the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “No one can deny the legitimacy of the state’s goal: preventing the phone (at home or in one’s pocket) from frequently ringing with unwanted calls. Every call uses some of the phone owner’s time and mental energy, both of which are precious.”