The Endless War on Unwanted Calls

The fight between Washington and an army of telemarketers, scammers, spoofers, and robocallers has gone on for decades—and right now, the bad guys are winning.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
April 19, 2018, 8 p.m.

The United States is no stranger to wars without end. And as agencies are once again inundated with complaints over unwanted and infuriating phone calls, it’s clear that’s just as true in the telecommunications space as it is overseas.

The Federal Communications Commission says complaints over unsolicited calls—whether from live telemarketers or robotic scammers promising “free vacations”—have skyrocketed in the past several years. Data compiled by the Federal Trade Commission show an exponential increase in complaints between 2014 and 2017, when over 7 million consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry reported new unwanted calls to the FTC.

No one knows the real number of unwanted calls that inundate Americans each year. But an estimate highlighted by the FCC suggests that consumers received around 2.4 billion robocalls each month in 2016.

Today’s threat is a far cry from the late 1980s, when family dinners were interrupted by human telemarketers hawking kitchen appliances or magazine subscriptions. Decades of escalation have now led to the advent of “spoofing”—technology that disguises the source of a phone call, typically by making it appear as though it’s coming from a local number. Paired with auto-dialing robots and often stemming from overseas, spoofing has wreaked increasing havoc on annoyed consumers in the last several years.

On Wednesday, lawmakers from the Senate Commerce Committee convened a strategy session on how to beat back the encroaching horde. In a hearing that included representatives from the FCC and FTC, consumer groups, industry representatives, and even an accused robocall kingpin, the senators floated a variety of new and proposed bills that would impose greater penalties on telemarketers, grant new mandates to the regulatory agencies, and lengthen the legal statute of limitations to go after robocall and spoofing violations.

But as committee chairman John Thune admits, even the most aggressive measures are unlikely to lead to absolute victory over unwanted calls.

“As has been true throughout history, bad actors always find a way of beating whatever the good guys put in place to stop them,” the senator told National Journal after the hearing. “So you have to constantly be evolving as the threat evolves.”

And according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who this week introduced new legislation designed to crack down on the threat, this endless war isn’t going the public’s way. “Right now, the scammers are winning,” he said. “Consumers are losing.”

While there’s no set date on when the fight began, many peg the passage of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act as a key turning point. Spearheaded by Sen. Ed Markey, who was then a member of the House, the law limited the hours when telemarketers could call and restricted the use of automatic dialing systems, recorded messages, and other newfangled technologies.

“It restored tranquility to the dinner hour,” said Kevin Rupy, the vice president of law and policy at the United States Telecom Association.

But while unwanted calls were knocked back for a time, they never quite went away. And over time, telemarketers and robocallers grew increasingly bold. That led to the 2003 passage of the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act, and the creation of an FTC-administered registry to which consumers quickly flocked.

With consumers under constant siege today, there’s an impression that the Do Not Call Registry failed. That extends to policymakers. On Wednesday, Thune asked the assembled panelists if the registry was “broken.”

“The [Do Not Call] list is really focused on keeping legitimate telemarketers in line,” said Rupy, explaining that it does next-to-nothing to deter illegal scams and robocalls, which proliferated last decade with the rise of spoofing.

By 2009, spoofing had become such an issue that Congress passed the 2009 Truth in Caller ID Act, mandating new FCC authorities and increased penalties for callers spoofing their numbers with “malicious intent.”

But spoofing technology kept improving and scammers increasingly moved their operations overseas, causing the FCC to struggle to keep up.

A commission-backed, industry-led robocall “strike force” tried to find market-based solutions to the problem several years ago, and it appears to have sparked a proliferation of new apps to combat the problem. “We’ve gone from 50 apps in 2016 to more than 500 today,” Rupy said.

And the FCC is working to increase penalties on robocallers they can actually catch, slapping an unprecedented $120 million penalty on Adrian Abramovich in 2017 for allegedly making nearly 100 million robocalls over a three-month period.

Long-term, the commission’s Holy Grail is what’s known as “call authentication”—a system that would make it clear where calls are really coming from, which numbers are legitimate, and which are not.

But that inquiry remains in its early stages, and the commission may struggle to overcome the technical hurdles, especially since many spoofing calls originate overseas. “Untangling that within the phone networks and internationally is a massively complex operation,” said an FCC official who asked for anonymity to speak more frankly.

Lawmakers are increasingly skeptical that the FCC, as it’s currently constituted, has the proper authorities or resources to strike at the heart of unwanted phone calls. “I’m not sure the long arm of the FCC reaches the problem,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden said.

One of Walden’s subcommittees had been slated to hold a hearing Thursday on unwanted calls, but that meeting has now been postponed indefinitely. Still, Walden says he’s committed to taking the fight to robocallers and spoofers any way he can.

“They’re generally advertising products and services,” Walden said. “If we can’t get at the robocall, I’d like to find out who the companies are that are benefiting from it, and I’ll drag their ass before the committee.”

But while an offensive surge on Capitol Hill and in the FCC could change the course of the conflict, few either in industry or government expect the long war to end anytime soon.

“It is a little bit like an arms race,” said Blumenthal, whose new “ROBOCOP” Act would require the FCC to implement the call-authentication technology now in the works. “Keep in mind, our adversaries are endlessly ingenious, and they’re armed by advancing technology.”

Blumenthal even suggested that the conflict is likely to outlast telephone systems altogether.

“I believe at some point there’ll probably be technology that’ll make all of these calls obsolete,” he said. “We don’t prosecute snail-mail Nigerian letters anymore because they’ve moved on to a different technology. But there’ll always be scammers, and there’ll always be legitimate businesses that sort of push toward the line—and maybe a little bit over it.”

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