FCC Pretends To Hold Carrier Feet To The Fire On Robocalls

from the annoy-me-during-dinner dept

Despite numerous government initiatives and countless promises from the telecom sector, our national robocall hell continues. Robocalls from telemarketers and scammers continue to be the subject the FCC receives the most complaints about, and recent data from the Robocall Index indicates that the problem is only getting worse. Consumers are routinely hammered by mortgage interest rate scams, credit card scams, student loan scams, business loan scams, and IRS scams. In September, group data showed that roughly 4.4 billion robocalls were placed to consumers at a rate of 147 million per day. The trend is not subtle:

Usually, you’ll see the FCC crack down hard on small robocall scammers if the case is a slam dunk. But you’ll never really see the agency hold giant carriers accountable for their longstanding apathy, blame shifting, and tap dancing that they have engaged in in terms of quickly adopting modern technical solutions to the problem.

This week, FCC boss Ajit Pai took a break from neutering popular consumer protections to send a letter to 13 companies including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Google, demanding they all do more to help protect consumers from robocalls. In a separate statement (pdf), Pai declared that if things don’t start improving by next year, he’ll maybe actually do something about it:

“Combatting (sic) illegal robocalls is our top consumer priority at the FCC. That?s why we need call authentication to become a reality?it?s the best way to ensure that consumers can answer their phones with confidence. By this time next year, I expect that consumers will begin to see this on their phones…If it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running next year, then we will take action to make sure that it does.”

Pai’s letter resulted in numerous outlets stating that carriers must finally move quickly on the scourge of robocalls, “or else.” Some outlets took the FCC’s letter to mean that carriers absolutely had to solve robocalls by next year or something ambiguously serious would happen to them.

But that’s not likely to be the case. Giant carriers have, if you haven’t noticed, found the Trump FCC to be a mindless rubber stamp for every single one of their wishes, no matter how preposterous. Surely they’re terrified that Pai may actually send them some additional snarky letters. After all, AT&T spent years trying to blame the FCC for its own failure to do more on this front, with zero real repercussions for the behavior (aside from being appointed lead on a “strike force” a few years back that pretty clearly hasn’t addressed the problem).

Like past FCCs under opposing parties, the agency loves to do this thing where it “demands” carriers do something they already planned to do. In this case, it’s the adoption of a new SHAKEN/STIR call authentication technology to hinder the use of spoofed numbers, which are all but impossible to police. Outside of a few holdouts (CenturyLink, Frontier), most of the carriers Pai sent letters to this week are already engaged in trials of this new technology, and have publicly stated they’ll be launching the tech in early 2019.

In short, Pai is “demanding” that carriers adopt technology he knows they already planned to adopt. But his failure to impose a hard deadline (unlike, say, Canada), and his legacy so far of being aggressively cozy with the companies he’s supposed to hold accountable, means that it’s pretty unlikely that companies that fail to keep pace on SHAKEN/STIR deployments will actually see much in the way of punishment. After all, wasn’t letting giant, lumbering telecom monopolies pretty much do whatever they want supposed to be a mystical panacea for the ills of the telecom sector?

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Companies: at&t, google, sprint, t-mobile

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Comments on “FCC Pretends To Hold Carrier Feet To The Fire On Robocalls”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Why the sic after combatting?

Things like “combating” vs. “Combatting” or “lightning” vs. “ligtening” or “color” vs. “Colour” all have their roots in the advent of the printing press, the way I heard it.

The typesetting method of the early printing press caused space to be at a premium. When charged by the letter, people found ways to cut down on the letters in a word without losing the meaning of the word. Thus, drop that extra t. Drop the u. Etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

say what, Karl?

"Giant carriers have, if you haven’t noticed, found the Trump FCC to be a mindless rubber stamp for every single one of their wishes, no matter how preposterous."

Every single one, huh? For starters, what about Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed merger with Tribune Media, a request that the Trump FCC recently shot down? Does that one not count?


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: say what, Karl?

Techdirt has written about the Sinclair thing too. Easy enough to search techdirt for “Sinclair” and see the multiple articles on it.

And then here’s the article on the merger’s death:

Timestamp? Aug 9, 2018. Same as your CNET article. Author? Oh look. It’s Karl Bode.

Like the other AC said, Tribune and Sinclair aren’t carriers, so, no, they don’t count. But Techdirt did, in fact, talk about that merger. At length. Over multiple months.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, just what is this “call authentication” they refer to?

There are many links provided by search on the topic but some seem to indicate the FCC is still looking for such a thing while industry is suggesting their existing products will work just fine. One such industry suggestion is trustedID, not sure how that would do anything to stop callerID spoofing.

I suspect this is simply a political stunt intended to produce an outcome in which all citizens are required to have this new fangled ID that will save us all from the evils of communication. Only problem is that most of the subject calls originate off shore where our laws are meaningless.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The article that the SHAKEN/STIR link links to notes that this system is the industry proposed solution to verify that the origin phone number is accurately represented to the receiving carrier. It indeed seems to be a simple implementation of standard key validation used throughout the internet.

That said, it also seems no work has actually been put into implementation of the idea, hence all the frustration and continued inability to fight robocalls.

ryuugami says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ah, sorry, my irritation was simply due to the naming. I haven’t looked into what it actually is or does.

It’s made immeasurably worse by SHAKEN standing for "Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs". I mean, really? Just picking random letters to make a completely arbitrary James Bond reference?

Why not call it SANDSTORM, for "Secure hANDling of aSserTed infORMation using tokens".
Or DISTORT, for "secure hanDlIng of aSserTed infORmation using Tokens".
Or simply SHIT, for "Secure Handling of asserted Information using Tokens". Hey, this one actually uses initials.

(This rant brought to you by the "stop thinking up funny names and do your job" department.)

anonymous coward says:

robocalls of arrest threats

– Is anyone besides me being hammered with arrest threats via robocalls? Basically the caller leaves a message which demands that I call some number (and presumably give a CC#) or an arrest warrant will be issued. (I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize, let the answering machine earn it’s keep)
– The first time it happened, I actually checked with the police (Pennsylvania State Police). By the time they (PASP) were done being nasty, I had concerns that they were going to pursue me for daring to check with them.
– Such an attitude makes me wonder if there is any reason not to believe that there is a financial connection between the police and the scammers.
– Too bad, in this case. In the 1960’s H. Beam Piper wrote well of the PA State Police. It is a serious shame to see how the PASP have deteriorated over the years.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: robocalls of arrest threats

I’m surprised anyone answers such calls and those idle threats are not only illegal but they are extremely humorous due to the fact that they are laughably full of shit. It sounds as though some of them are calling from a pay phone in Grand Central Station … probably from the restroom.

I do not even listen to their messages anymore.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Does it matter if...

…he DID impose a hard deadline? Like “all cars will get 60mpg by 2020”?

As we recently found out in NY, holding carriers “responsible” means… making a lot of noise and nothing really changes.

I haven’t looked over how carriers plan to implement CallerID confirmation, but since pretty much every call made now is over VoIP, I doubt there’s any kind of simple solution.

I do wonder how spoofing works (or doesn’t) on the other types of call verification – ANI or 800 Service systems. CID used to come in under the second ring as a data packet. ANI (what the cops use so they can say they don’t use Caller ID), Automatic Number Identification comes in *before* the first ring, and, IIRC, 800 Service ID comes from the Caller Provider rather than the originating caller.

But, hey, it’s the government. They can pass a law that the tide isn’t allowed to go out if they want.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Does it matter if...

They’re not hiding their ID from the phone company, they’re spoofing CallerID so that the call recipient can’t tell where it’s actually from.

It used to be mostly just three digit numbers appearing on a spoofed CID, of late they’re spoofing the same Exchange as the number being called, in the hopes that people think it’s a neighbor. If you get a CID popup that says nothing but “344”, you probably won’t answer it. If you live in Exchange 222 and your CID pops up 222-4326, you’re far more likely to answer it.

VoIP makes it difficult to verify that the CID being sent is the number it’s actually being sent from.

I use a Google number that rings the house phone and two cells. CID passes through the Google system and arrives on all three phones as-sent, so pass-through is possible, making CID verification all the more difficult.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Does it matter if...

If you live in Exchange 222 and your CID pops up 222-4326, you’re far more likely to answer it.

Is it really more likely? If I get a call from the same area code and exchange as my number I know it’s spam. I know nobody with a number that close to mine and since it’s one of the first cellular exchanges created in my area the 10000 numbers have been used up for a very long time. Every call from one of them goes directly to the roundfile.

Pixelation says:

There is a special place in hell...

for robocallers. Right next to Spammers. For a while I simply ignored calls from numbers I didn’t recognize. Of course, it meant deleting a message from “The credit department” or some such. My current strategy, if I have time, is to answer and not say anything for about 3 seconds. Most of the time there is just dead air and it hangs up. I’m thinking we need an app that will let us send calls to a fax line or forwards them to a 900 number.

Good lord, I got a robocall as I was writing this post!

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: There is a special place in hell...

I agree with the idea of picking it up, hitting 1 to be connected to a person, and then putting the phone down.
Calling 4.4 billion numbers probably costs scammers next to nothing, but having a person answer the phone costs them money, especially if there’s no one on the other end.
And remember that if everyone wastes the scammers time, even by saying nothing, it will quickly add up: 1 person wastes 1 minute of their time; 10 people waste 10 minutes, but 100 million waste 100 million minutes or 1,666,666 hours. Even if the scammer companies pay $5 an hour, that’s about $8,333,335 in wasted time!! No scammer company can afford this loss!

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: There is a special place in hell...

Someone actually did this, listing a 900 number he owned as his number on all those lists that get sold to scammers. It was his primary number, as far as they were concerned. He would talk to them as long as they wanted. A few months later, all the spam and solicitations magically stopped coming in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: There is a special place in hell...

Many of these calls are placed by machine, not a person. Sometimes they’ll leave a message of what is clearly a recording playback. Other times it’s a computer synthesized voice that is obviously not human. Answering these calls wastes only your time. The scammers don’t care.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why are the carriers at fault?

Isn’t this like blaming the government DOT for allowing criminals to use our roadways? I’d have thought that Section 230 would absolve AT&T, et. al. of any specific responsibility.

That’s not to say that they can’t be part of the solution, but from a legal standpoint, it’s not necessarily their problem to solve. Our various state AGs, the Federal AG, and maybe even our state BBBs might launch lawsuits against the perpetrators, but to hold the carriers accountable seems the wrong target.

DannyB (profile) says:

Illegal Robocalls

I love the qualifier “illegal” before RoboCalls.

That implies that there should be a distinction between legal and illegal.

Being cynical, for good reason, I can imagine that the legal robocalls will be something like the anti-net-neutrality “paid prioritization”.

Imagine, phone providers offering “paid prioritization” of robocalls, making it legal for robocallers to provide their robocalling “services” to consumers.

In return, the phone service providers, and the robocallers will pay under the table money, and campaign contributions to the FCC members who make the new rules.

Is this scenario really that difficult to imagine?

Next up, a premium robocalling service option that guarantees the recipient of a robocall cannot hang up or disconnect the robocall until the call has been “completed”.

(The meaning of “completed” will someday be stretched to mean that a credit card number has been taken and charged for something.)

Yep. Call me crazy, paranoid, insane, crazy, cynical, or crazy.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Illegal Robocalls

I think the “legal robocalls” category is for things like electoral polling, political advocacy, and so forth, which are (IIRC) specifically exempted under the law.

There’s also robocalls which the recipient has signed up for; my household routinely receives robocalls from our local pharmacy notifying us that a prescription is ready, for instance.

There are probably other categories I’m not recalling at the moment – but the point is that there are, indeed, categories of robocall which are not illegal, and some at least of them probably should not be.

Jim P. (profile) says:


Until people stop falling for scams so transparent a concussed hamster would say “Wait a minute..” scammers will flourish.

The calls escalate because the calls work. The phone companies have a vested interest in them because they sell equipment and services that facilitate the entire industry.

They could have built in from the ground up security measures to prevent caller ID spoofing but chose not to.

Peter Max says:

Enterprise software companies

Austin Design Studio • Enterprise Software Companies • Innovation Consulting • Rocksauce: Design thinking methodology drives us. An Austin design studio and app design company helping customers with product design, service design & workshops.Rocksauce is digital transformation product design agency in Austin, Texas. Rocksauce Studios develops enterprise level software solutions and applications to improve processes. We also work to help appreneurs launch their dreams. https://www.rocksaucestudios.com/services/

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