Let's Robocall It Off


Highway overpass

Technology and New State Laws Are Helping Consumers End Unwanted Phone Calls

By Heather Morton

Your phone rings. Caller ID says it’s the IRS. With butterflies in your stomach, you answer the call and are told there is a problem with your tax return. To verify some information and avoid penalties, you must give your Social Security or credit card number.

Another caller mimics a family member and asks you to send a prepaid debit card for bail or some other emergency. That’s followed by still another call from a number that looks familiar but turns out to be a recorded pitch for a product or service.

Then, just before you go to bed, the phone rings again. This time you’re glad you answered. It’s another recording, but it’s from the school announcing a snow day tomorrow. There are good robocalls and there are bad ones!

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the IRS hoax has scammed 14,700 victims out of more than $72 million since October 2013, despite ongoing efforts to educate consumers about the fraud.

No one, not even NCSL staff, is immune from receiving unwanted telephone solicitations, often as robocalls using misleading caller ID. (While writing this article, I received four unwanted calls in four hours.) According to the YouMail Robocall Index, 4.5 billion robocalls were placed in September. That’s more than 150 million calls a day and an average of 13.8 calls per U.S. resident. Texas, California, Florida, Georgia and New York were the top five states receiving robocalls in September.

According to Hiya, an app that helps block unwanted robocalls, the five area codes targeted the most by spammers are 214 (Dallas), 210 (San Antonio), 817 (Forth Worth, Texas), 512 (Austin, Texas) and 832 (Houston). Hiya estimates that 25.3 billion calls have been made to U.S. mobile phones in the first half of this year.

YouMail reports just over 46% of the robocalls placed in September were scams, 12% were telemarketing calls, 23% percent were alerts and reminders, and the remaining 19% were payment reminders. Although nearly half the robocalls were made with the recipient’s permission, the majority were unsolicited and unwanted.

FCC Regulations Issued

The FCC has issued several declaratory rulings to address illegal robocalling. The most recent was in June to clarify that voice service providers may offer consumers features that block unwanted calls through analytics (call-blocking programs) and from numbers not in a consumer’s contact list (whitelist programs).

The call-blocking clarification was meant to ensure that the programs’ “reasonable analytics” could discern unwanted robocalls from wanted calls, like school notifications and payment reminders. “Call-blocking and labeling services can benefit consumers by reducing the number of illegal calls received by consumers, but they can also erroneously prevent legal and wanted communications,” says Michele Shuster, general counsel for the Professional Association for Customer Engagement.

In the ruling, the FCC cautioned voice service providers to avoid blocking calls from law enforcement, emergency operations and other public safety entities. Call-blocking programs should also include a point of contact for legitimate callers to report erroneous blocking and a mechanism to resolve such complaints.

The FCC’s whitelist clarification says that voice service providers may offer an opt-in program letting consumers specify the phone numbers they wish to receive calls from. If used, a whitelist program makes call blocking the default for consumers.

In addition, the FCC has urged the telecommunications industry to develop a caller ID authentication system known as “Shaken/Stir" (see the sidebar “Know Your Robo-Terms”) to combat caller ID spoofing. Many providers are using the Shaken/Stir framework to ensure that the information about the source of calls on the network is accurate.

States Not Waiting on Feds

In the midst of the FCC regulatory actions, state legislators have introduced numerous bills and resolutions to address commercial communications, including robocalls, caller ID spoofing, no-call lists and registries and other telemarketing issues.

So far just this year, 35 states have introduced more than 150 bills and resolutions and enacted or adopted 25 of them. Arkansas enacted legislation that holds telecommunication service providers and third-party spoofing providers accountable for certain activities, imposing criminal penalties for some. Kentucky prohibited phone solicitations that misrepresent the name or phone number in caller ID services, with specified exemptions.

Maine Senator Justin Chenette (D) sponsored legislation that makes it an unfair trade practice for a telemarketer to misrepresent his or her phone number when making a solicitation or to use a recorded or artificial voice. “The state can’t sit idly by and wait for the federal government to act when small businesses are losing productivity, seniors are being scammed and people are afraid to answer their phones,” Chenette said when the bill was signed.

Nebraska created the Neighbor Spoofing Protection Act, which bans selling, renting or conveying telephone numbers and prohibits connecting with a telecommunications service or IP-enacted voice service to gain access to a caller ID to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value. Senator Steve Halloran (NP), who sponsored the bill, worked to balance the economic role of the telemarketing industry with consumer protections. “As a citizen and businessman, I clearly recognize that this is an important industry to the economy,” he says. “I don’t intend to harm the industry, but rather help [them] and protect the good people of Nebraska.”

Tennessee and Virginia increased the penalties for using false caller ID information. Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Dakota and Pennsylvania adopted resolutions. Pennsylvania Representative Kerry Benninghoff (R), who supports more federal action, sponsored a resolution urging Congress to grant the FCC additional authority to stop unwanted and illegal robocalls and spoofing.

“Clearly, more needs to be done,” Benninghoff says. “Our phones are ringing off the hook. Every day, and several times a day, our seniors and neighbors are being bombarded by people who are attempting to steal their hard-earned money and personal information.”

Industry Responds

In a joint statement, USTelecom, CTIA–The Wireless Association and NCTA–The Internet & Television Association affirmed their commitment to battling illegal and unwanted calls. “Illegal robocalls are more than annoying, they are a deliberate attempt by criminals to flood voice networks with unwanted calls that scam, spoof and prey upon vulnerable consumers who are justifiably fed up.”

When the U.S. House passed the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act and sent it to the Senate in July, the response from Tim McKone, AT&T’s executive vice president of federal relations, was encouraging. “We have long called for a holistic approach to addressing unwanted and illegal robocalls, encouraged the deployment of new technologies, and advocated for increased law enforcement,” he said. “The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act represents another tool in our collective industry and enforcement toolbox.”

The U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan TRACED Act (short for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence) in May. It will, among other things, raise the fines the FCC can levy on robocallers and increase the statute of limitations for bringing those cases.

Consumer Beware

What can frustrated, wary consumers do as they wait for action at the state and federal levels? Stay alert.

To combat unwanted robocalls and phone scams, the FCC recommends that you not answer calls from unknown numbers. If you do answer and realize it’s an unwanted call, hang up immediately. If the caller or recording asks you to hit a button to stop getting calls, just hang up. It’s a trick often used by scammers to identify potential targets. And do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with “Yes.”

So, fair warning to the robocaller targeting this NCSL staffer, in Japanese, on my office phone. I’m not going to push any more buttons or try to get you to speak English. I’m simply not answering any more unknown callers. I’m robocalling it off. I’ve had enough.

Heather Morton is a program principal in NCSL’s Fiscal Affairs Program.

Additional Resources

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