Operator, Well Could You Help Me Place This Call?

Phone: [ring ring]

You: Well, I don’t recognize this number, but it’s a local area code. I should probably answer it. “Hello?”

Phone: [silence]

You: “Hello?”

Phone: “………………………Hello!……………..You’ve been selected for a rare limited-time offer for some fantastic free—“

You: [click]

Everette Collection/Shutterstock

In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a pretty sharp uptick in bogus phone calls making their way to our mobile devices. I’ve lost count of the number of random numbers trying to reach me, and because the spammers have managed to spoof local area codes, I’m always reluctant to ignore them. I was recently in the hospital and met with more doctors than I can shake a crutch at, and a few of the calls that I’ve “blown off” have been doctors, nurses, or pharmacies trying to reach me. You could just say “that’s fine, let it go to your voicemail and return the doctors’ calls at your leisure.” But they’re busy people, and I’ve found that phone tag is not as effective as simply answering the phone and blocking the number if the person on the other end is, as President Trump would say, a “bad hombre.”

Fortunately, our national telecommunications crisis has been noticed. On March 2, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced several items that will be on the agenda for a meeting that will be taking place later this month, one of which is:

Advanced Methods to Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls – The Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry that would enable voice service providers to better protect subscribers from illegal and fraudulent robocalls. (CG Docket No. 17- 59)

In the supplemental fact sheet that includes the “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Notice of Inquiry (NOI),” robocalls and telemarketing calls are listed as the top source of complaints by consumers to the FCC and “U.S. consumers received approximately 2.4 billion robocalls per month in 2016.” It goes on to explain that the NPRM:

  • Proposes to adopt rules that providers may block spoofed robocalls when the subscriber to a particular telephone number requests that calls originating from that number be blocked (sometimes called “Do- Not-Originate”). This proposal builds on a clarification made by the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau in 2016 at the request of the industry’s Robocall Strike Force.
  • Proposes to adopt rules that providers may block spoofed robocalls when the spoofed Caller ID can’t possibly be valid, including numbers that haven’t been assigned to anyone yet.
  • Seeks special comment on how to address spoofing from internationally-originated numbers, where scammers often hide to avoid U.S. legal processes.

The “Robocall Strike Force” (RSF), which sounds like a lame knockoff version of Marvel’s Avengers, is a group that was formed to combat the recent influx of robocalls and telephone scams. The CEO of AT&T is the head of this strike force, and as of March 2017 they have met twice to form a comprehensive action plan. However, the RSF published a report late last year which stressed that “there is no silver bullet to solve the robocalling problem.” Any plan that the RSF creates needs to be able to adapt to a changing technological landscape where spammers can, and will, find new ways to reach their victims. A columnist writing for the Los Angeles Times explains that “the rest of the 45-page report is filled with a lot of technical gobbledygook but no rock-solid commitments to specific actions or a specific time frame…Nor is there a pledge to develop and offer customers free tools similar to Nomorobo for blocking robocalls — something the FCC specifically had sought when the strike force was established.”

One key issue of both the FCC proposal and the RSF’s methods is the cost involved with developing and implementing specific strategies: should it be passed on to the consumer, or should these efforts be considered a type of business expense that helps telecom companies provide a quality service to their consumers and stay competitive? Comcast users are most likely used to seeing random new charges on their monthly bills, from “franchise fees” to “regional sports fees” and “FCC Regulatory Fees” (yes, I’m looking at my Comcast bill from February right now). If the RSF’s strategy goes into effect, would these users mind seeing a new item on their bills called something along the lines of “Robocall Defense Tool”?

Another issue involves all of the different groups and special interests who have a stake in the game. Take the carriers, for instance. Regardless of where the calls originate from, eliminating robocalls altogether is a costly endeavor, and carriers would need to have a “secret” universal list of numbers that serves as a reference tool to confirm the validity of inbound and outbound calls. The carriers make money off of interchange fees and get paid from the originating carrier, so shutting down robocalls would not only be costly to enforce, but they’d also be losing money due to the drop in calls. Boo hoo.

You could also look at AdBlock’s situation. AdBlock Plus users may have been under the impression that the website add-on blocked all ads on the internet, but companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft began paying AdBlock to be “whitelisted” in order to have their ads not be affected by the blocking tools. Representatives for the ad blocking service claim that they have been transparent from the beginning when it comes to allowing certain ads through the “Acceptable Ads Initiative,” but if one were to take this scenario and apply it to the telecommunications context, could call spammers band together and pay to be let through the filters? The only way this would be prevented would be for robocalls to be heavily regulated in such a way that robocallers could be found liable for .

The ubiquitous “do not call” list has essentially become “here’s a list of live numbers to call,” and to say that it’s ineffective is an understatement. Blocking spam calls may seem like you’re being proactive, but the majority of the numbers that are calling you were created out of thin air, so you’ll just be receiving a new one right out of the oven the next day. The worst are the calls that seem legitimate (they have a live person on the other end), but they devolve into a run-of-the-mill IRS scam or a plan to scare you into revealing personal information. DigA readers may not be as susceptible as the general population (I’m sure you like to think that, at least), but we’re only as strong as our weakest link and I’d hate to have people I know be exploited for completely avoidable reasons.

I like to think that the FCC has our best interests at heart, and I’m sure that FCC officials are just as prone to receiving robocalls as we are, but I haven’t decided yet if I would be okay with paying a small monthly charge for blocking features, or if I should expect the carriers to pay for that sort of thing on their own dime (seeing as it should be one of their primary concerns based on consumer complaints). Regardless, while the FCC and the Lame Avengers continue to debate strategies to implement these preventative measures, I’ll be sipping a margarita on a beach in Aruba because I just got a call that I won an all-expenses paid trip!

I need to clear my schedule for April.

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