Progress Against Robocalling

I mostly write about broadband these days, but we can’t forget that telephony is still a significant part of the industry. While the national penetration rate of residential landline telephones has dropped to about 20%, most businesses continue to have telephones, and practically everybody has a cellphone.

The bane of telephony continues to be robocalling and other nuisance calls that pester anybody with a telephone. There are bad actors that impersonate government or commercial entities with the goal of scamming the elderly and other vulnerable individuals. Scammers pretend to be the Social Security Administration, banks, utilities, the local sheriff, or tech companies in an attempt to solicit credit card numbers or other valuable data from people. In a more development robocalls are used to launch denial of service attacks against hospitals and public service entities to block the ability to send or receive legitimate phone calls.

There is a systematic industry effort to squash robocalling. The Industry Traceback Group includes a collaboration of over 400 wireline, wireless, VoIP, and cable companies that are tackling the robocalling issue. This group works with law enforcement to trace, identify, and stop the sources of illegal robocalling. The group’s goal is to block or shut down illegal robocalling.

The effort is having an impact and routinely has been able to black robocall operations. Earlier this year, the FCC issued a record $225 million in fines against two Texas companies, Rising Eagle and JSquared Telecom. These companies had been making billions of illegal spoofed calls (where they used a false call-from number) to sell fraudulent health insurance. The callers claimed to represent major insurance companies like Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, and UnitedHealth Group.

There was a Supreme Court decision earlier in 2022 which threatened to weaken the effort to slow and stop robocalling. The case, Facebook v. Duguid, focused on the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system, which is commonly called an autodialer, as defined in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) from 1991. The Act defined an autodialer as equipment that can store telephone numbers to be used by a random or sequential number generator. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Facebook and found that definition to be narrow and to only apply to a specific type of calling equipment.

This ruling hasn’t slowed down the Industry Tracking Group since most robocalls still violate the 1991 legislation. Calls made for the purposes of scams still violate the law. It is still illegal to call cell phones with a prerecorded or artificial voice without the permission of the user. Telemarketing calls often also violate state laws when spoofing with false caller ID is used with the intent to defraud or cause harm to call recipients.

The large FCC fine and the attempt to shut down robocalling operations have, unfortunately, driven the robocalling industry overseas, and a large percentage of robocalls now originate from overseas.

The industry is fighting against robocalling in several ways. First, many carriers have provided call-blocking tools to subscribers to block calls from unwanted numbers. The industry has implemented and continues to refine the STIR/SHAKEN process that makes it harder for robocallers to spoof telephone numbers. Probably most importantly, the industry is working with law enforcement to shut down illegal robocalling operations.

One of the most interesting features of the effort is the labeling of calls. I use AT&T for cell service, and my caller ID labels routinely identifies calls as either a telemarketing call or as potential spam. While it’s annoying to continue to get these calls, it’s comforting to be able to ignore them.

2 thoughts on “Progress Against Robocalling

  1. Apparently Verizon is not capable of identifying spam type calls. I have Verizon and still get calls from places I don’t know anything about. I have noticed a lack of caller ID with actual names attached to the call. In fact if the number is not in my phone book I am not very likely to get more than the number and place the call is supposedly from.

    If the name or number that comes up is not in mt phone book or I know for a fact who is calling back I do not answer the call. If they are real they can leave a message, if they don’t leave a message then I didn’t want to talk to them anyway. It is surprising how many 4-7 second messages I get that have no sound in them at all.

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