Point: Government must do more to stop robocall onslaught
By James Rosen
Congress created the Do Not Call Registry in 2003 by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, and still robocalls kept coming.
The Federal Trade Commission outlawed robocalls outright in 2009, and yet they kept coming — by the billions.
Samsung, Apple, LG and other smartphone manufacturers created call-block features, but spam sellers outwit them by using cheap computer programs that scramble the digits to produce all manner of phony alternative incoming numbers.
There is no doubt that the registry has been somewhat effective. Since I added my phone number to it, the number of robocalls to me has dropped. Yet even with my number registered, I still get many unwanted calls, most from recorded devices.
Americans receive more than 3 billion robocalls a month — three times the amount six years ago.
While somewhat effective, the National Do Not Call Registry is an institutional form of the Dutch boy from the 1865 American novel "Hans Brinker": The boy who stood all night in freezing cold with his finger plugging a hole in the dike. Hans, though, saved his country; the registry, for all its creators' good intentions, has not saved us from robocalls.
The FTC, which oversees the registry, says it contains 221 million numbers. On the surface, that sounds like, in the indelible words of Borat from the great Sacha Baron Cohen film of the same name, Great Success! Yet the list has not been purged, so many of the numbers go back years and are either out of service or belong to different users than those who originally registered the numbers.
A bigger problem is the FTC's paltry enforcement. Its website says the federal agency "takes aggressive legal action" against violators of the registry's ban on unsolicited calls. Yet it has brought a mere 153 enforcement actions, or an average of 8.5 per year. While those suits have recovered $292 million in civil penalties or restitution, you don't have to be a math whiz to realize that the chances of violators being punished are almost nil.
The entire annual budget of the Federal Trade Commission is $308 million. Tasked with big-ticket responsibilities ranging from overseeing bankruptcy claims to enforcing antitrust laws, oversight of the Do Not Call Registry is a relatively small part of its portfolio.
The single most compelling statistic for arguing in favor of stronger federal action against robocalls is this: The FTC receives 19,000 complaints a day — from people whose numbers are already on the Do Not Call Registry. A full 78% of the complaints are about robocalls.
With the government already spending trillions of dollars on controlling the coronavirus pandemic, fighting climate change and combatting terrorism, it is unrealistic to ask lawmakers to give the FTC the huge amounts of increased funding that would be necessary to really clamp down on robocalls.
Also unrealistic is the advice doled out by the FTC and various consumer groups such as the warning to answer calls only from numbers you recognize. As a journalist, I get calls from hundreds of sources. Many use numbers I simply don't know or, especially with the rise of cell phones, are different from those I used for my initial outreach. We also can't possibly memorize all the numbers in our personal databases. Simple logic dictates that my peers in other fields face the same constraints.
Instead of trying to improve the Do Not Call Registry, Congress should consider going after some of the root causes of this digital pestilence.
It should start by putting data brokers out of business. These firms make huge profits by selling our phone numbers and other personal information to a host of companies big and small, from insurance firms and car-warranty peddlers even to charities doing good work.
The sale of our personal data should be illegal without our express permission. And such a ban must close the kind of huge loophole that has opened with the fairly recent requirement for website hosts to get our permission to collect the computer "cookies" that track our internet itineraries. Started in 2018 with a data-protection law implemented by the European Union, many web hosts have turned this requirement into an ironic farce: If you don't allow them to collect cookies, you can't use the site.
We unwittingly give some companies permission to sell our data in small print no one ever reads or can even find. This has to change. Firms must be required to get our explicit permission through clear, bold and large solicitations.
Congress should also ban the use of ANI — Automatic Number Identification — systems that capture and store our phone numbers when we dial 800 or other toll-free numbers, to be sold later to the highest bidder.
The Do Not Call Registry remains a good weapon against robocalls, but it's hardly enough. Congress must expand our arsenal to match the firepower that telephonic cheats, swindlers and other scam artists use to disrupt our already harried lives.
James Rosen is a longtime Washington correspondent who has covered Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
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Counterpoint: Private sector and consumers can fight back against robocalls
By Ryan Nabil
"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 back against this nuisance? The Federal Communications Commission and consumers alike can take steps to reduce robocalls.
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.
For example, 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 nearly $340,000 — her life's savings — to a bank account that belonged to criminals.
Recognizing the challenges that robocalls pose, the FCC rightly 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 cost-effective to send pre-recorded warning messages in such crises.
Likewise, many small businesses also use recorded messages for legitimate businesses 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. Instead, the FCC must find a way to allow legal spoofing while reducing illegal spoofing.
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 as 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. This loophole is allowing the robocall problem to continue. Potential criminals can evade the regulations by targeting smaller telecommunications companies that have not yet adopted this technology.
That is why a group of attorneys general has recently urged the FCC to shorten the timeframe 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. Likewise, 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 among different telecoms companies in providing better spam detection services will be much more effective than a top-down approach in blocking scam calls.
Ryan Nabil is a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington and Fox International Fellow at the Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
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