Often associated with fraud and spam, the annoying robocall is a phone call that uses a computerized autodialer to deliver a pre-recorded message. Legitimate robocalls can come from a number of sources, including political candidates running for office, charities, doctor’s offices and debt collectors. Not so legitimate calls come from fraudulent companies who “sell” things, such as extended warranties on your car and vacation packages, etc. When illegal robocallers are not trying to sell you something, they’re trying to obtain personal information. There are some robocallers that even disguise themselves as legitimate organizations you’re associated with like your phone carrier or the IRS!
In the U.S., these unsolicited robocalls are illegal to wireless phones, landlines for residents (who do not have an established business relationship with the caller), and for numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry. This includes calls and texts!
History of robocalls
The man behind robocalls is Tony Inocentes. He designed the technology and launched it in 1983 to announce his candidacy for the 57th Assembly District in California. Running a debt collection agency, he also invented phone software in 1989 that could be used by debt collectors at large. He then invented political robo polling in 2001. Since then, the industry has been flooded with robocall copy cats that have used its function towards criminal ends.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a 2016 analyses estimated that consumers received nearly 2.4 billion robocalls every month. In a 2017 report by NBC, it was cited that also “in 2016, roughly 22.1 million Americans lost a total of $9.5 billion in robocall scams.” This was a “130 percent growth in fraudulent robocalls since 2015.”
What the telecom industry is doing to prevent the calls
Because robocalls are such a systemic nuisance and in many cases illegal, there are a number of initiatives and laws underway to address them. Multiple government bodies and companies alike have joined forces to create those laws, as well as, voice provider guidelines and technology. Below, I list five main categories of groups, initiatives and tools.
- The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991 is a federal law passed by Congress, which makes it illegal in the U.S. for a company to make robocalls to wireless phones, landline owners without an established business relationship with the callers and those who are listed on the National Do Not Call Registry. The law also requires that the robocaller identify who is initiating the call and include a telephone number or address by which the caller can be reached.
- Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 makes it illegal "to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value...."
- The US National Do Not Call Registry (excluding political robocalls) is a database of numbers that companies will not call – given that they follow the law. It’s free to add your number to the registry and takes seconds to sign up for. Additionally, your number is never taken off the list, and it applies to both mobile phones and landlines.
- The Federal Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibits recorded sales messages unless you have given written permission for the caller to contact you.
- FTC’s Operation Call it Quits, a partnership with state and federal partners that has taken 94 actions against operations around the country.
- Spoofing Prevention Act of 2017 is a bill that “amends the Communications Act of 1934 to expand the prohibition against knowingly transmitting misleading or inaccurate caller identification information.”
- The FCC governs regulations that prohibit anyone from making robocalls to mobile phone numbers without the recipients’ prior consent (although, permits non-commercial robocalls to most landline phones). In addition, they are exploring ways for voice providers to block unwanted calls, and are developing a comprehensive database to reduce them. Furthermore, when a fraudulent caller is identified, the FCC Enforcement Bureau issues fines against them.
- The FTC collects scammers’ telephone numbers from consumer complaints to develop its blacklist database. They provide robocaller telephone numbers to telecommunications companies and other partners daily. They also require that you, as a receiver, give written or verbal consent in order to legally receive autodialed or prerecorded calls or texts to your wireless number. Except from this regulation, however, are a number of parties, including political campaigns, charities, debt collectors and health providers, as well as, calls to businesses. The FTC also educates consumers and fines illegal robocallers.
- Congress is advancing legislation to increase federal coordination on robocalls and the deployment of the SHAKEN/STIR methodology (see more directly below in the Technology and Advocacy section).
Taskforces and Advocacy:
- The Industry Traceback Group (ITB Group) led by USTelecom, is a 25+-member group that includes cable, wireline, wireless and transit providers. The group primarily shares information within the group and externally with the FCC in an effort to identify and convict fraudulent callers.
- The Robocall Strike Force is comprised of broadband providers, voice service providers, software developers, standards organizations, consumer groups and the government.
- The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a private non-profit organization that houses a Do Not Call registry and allows consumers to file complaints against robocallers.
- USTelecom is a broadband member association that, among other things, communicates about and advocates for telecommunications guidelines.
- SHAKEN/STIR is a methodology or guideline to verify that an incoming call is really coming from the number listed on the caller ID display. The proposed solution is call authentication technology between networks to customers and from callers using different participating providers.
- Enhanced Caller ID is provided by a number of phone carriers, so that consumers can better identify whether calls are legitimate or not.
- Blacklisting and whitelisting is a practice that utilizes pre-established blacklists, and may offer hardware and/or software to build user-generated black and whitelists (see more in the section directly below called Technology).
- Crowdsourcing is a way to build a more comprehensive blacklist of robocaller numbers.
- Blacklisting and whitelisting helps consumers block user-generated lists of numbers (blacklisted) and always allow others (whitelisted). Hardware and software is available for landlines and apps are available for mobile phones.
- iOS mobile apps are also available, such as Nomorobo to block calls and RoboKiller to stop spam calls.
- Android apps include Mr. Number to block calls and SMS texts and the ability to black and whitelist numbers.
- For iOS and Android, there is Truecaller and YouMail.
- Apple is also piloting an OS update that will only allow the phone number of contacts to come through. All other calls will go straight to voicemail.
What you can do
While laws, guidelines and technology catch up with the creators of Robocalls to remedy the situation, consumers and businesses alike can do a variety of things to address the issue. Here are a number of ways to protect yourself:
- Don’t give your phone number to businesses you work with unless you have to. They may use it themselves for robocalling and/or sell the number to a third party.
- Add your number to the National Do Not Call registry.
- Contact your home landline, VoIP and/or mobile phone providers to see what kind of call blocking services they provide. Many offer free call-blocking services.
- Download a call-blocking app. Some are free, and some cost. A handful of examples include: Nomorobo, YouMail, Truecaller and RoboKiller.
- Hang up right away or simply do not answer calls you don’t recognize.
- Report unwanted calls to the National Do Not Call registry, the BBB and/or to the FTC. Filing complaints is easier than you may think, and is a way to impact policy change. It’s also important to note that, per the BBB, those who violate the National Do Not Call Registry or place an illegal robocall can be fined up to $40,654 per call.
- Contact a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) lawyer and sue a robocaller company in court. Citizens can recover up to $1,500 for each call if the company knowingly violated the TCPA.
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