Robocalls Swamp Hospitals As The Trump FCC Pretends To Fix The Problem

from the spammed-to-death dept

Despite endless government initiatives and countless promises from the telecom sector, our national robocall hell continues. Robocalls from telemarketers continue to be the subject the FCC receives the most complaints about (200,000 complaints annually, making up 60% of all FCC complaints), and recent data from the Robocall Index indicates that the problem is only getting worse.

As robocallers get bolder, they’re increasingly targeting institutions like hospitals, often to a dangerous degree:

“At Tufts Medical Center, administrators registered more than 4,500 calls between about 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on April 30, 2018, said Taylor Lehmann, the center?s chief information security officer. Many of the messages seemed to be the same: Speaking in Mandarin, an unknown voice threatened deportation unless the person who picked up the phone provided their personal information.”

Tufts’ phone provider, Windstream, informed the medical center there was nothing they could do. But the problem has spiked in recent months, and other medical professionals say legislators, corporations, and the FCC have been too slow in responding to the threat:

“Administrators at other hospitals, cancer centers and medical research organizations around the country share Tufts?s robocall concerns. They fret that such a seemingly obvious tech malady has worsened in recent months and that government regulators and phone companies have been too slow to help. And they fear that robocallers could eventually outmatch their best efforts to keep hospital phone lines free during emergencies, creating the conditions for a potential health crisis.”

As we just got done explaining, the Pai FCC has been getting a lot of press for what it claims is a bold, new plan to help rein in the robocall menace by “suggesting” that carriers offer free robocalling tools by default, and recommending that they quickly adopt call authentication technology to thwart spoofing (faking the originating call number). But the Pai FCC proposal isn’t actually new, and offers absolutely no penalty for carriers that fail to comply.

And while Ajit Pai has promised to hold carriers accountable if they don’t, there’s absolutely nothing in Pai’s tenure so far that suggests he’s actually capable of standing up to carriers. The press likes to beat around the bush on this front, but there are two major reasons this FCC hasn’t done more to thwart robocalls. One, carriers don’t want to have to pay for it, and the Pai FCC has proven to be a mindless rubber stamp to carrier interests. Two, a lot of “legitimate” telemarketing and debt collecting agencies utilize these exact same tactics, and the FCC doesn’t want to upset them either.

What we get as a result is a government that pays a lot of lip service to the problem, but doesn’t actually do much of anything for fear of upsetting campaign contributors in the telecom and marketing industries. They’re quick to go after smaller robocall players that are easy to prosecute, but they’re terrified of holding larger, legitimate companies accountable for their own role in failing to implement technologies that could have put the problem to bed years ago. Again because while a lot of “robocalls” are perpetuated by illegal scam operations, a lot of them are perpetuated by industries using the exact same tactics (this 2018 testimony by Margot Saunders (pdf) explains this in great detail) to harass and spam consumers.

As a result, the problem will only get worse until somebody in government grows a spine and mandates that all carriers must implement anti-spoofing tech and provide completely free robocall-blocking tools to consumers by default, giving consumers full control over who can call them and when. The problem is getting bad enough that even Ajit Pai may be forced to take a tougher stance against his BFFs in the marketing and telecom sectors, but that’s not a bet most would be willing to make anytime soon.

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Comments on “Robocalls Swamp Hospitals As The Trump FCC Pretends To Fix The Problem”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Deregulation

well, I’m not a fan of Reagan, AynRand, nor government regulation.

but it’s a fundamental error to believe government politicians and bureaucrats have better economic judgments and personal integrity than the general public and businessmen within that public.

your government creates dramatically more big problems than it ever solves.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Deregulation

I have a hard time holding the carriers responsible for the actions of the companies using the phone system. It is an awful lot like trying to hold YouTube responsible for users uploading videos without proper rights.

The only thing that makes me lean a little toward forcing the carriers to do something is that they frequently have a monopoly in the areas they serve and this is an issue that consumers could impact with their wallets if they had choices for service.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Deregulation

From a technical side, Robo-Callers and Voice Spammers are using tricks to mask their true number. If you hit the callback feature on your phone, you reach India even though it looks like a local number.

Now, this might be a case of asking them to "Nerd Harder" and I am not familiar with the intricacies of their setup – but it seems like it should be trivial to block all calls that don’t have the same "From" and "Callback" numbers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Deregulation

I have a hard time holding the carriers responsible for the actions of the companies using the phone system. It is an awful lot like trying to hold YouTube responsible for users uploading videos without proper rights.

Yeah, except for the tiny little fact that it isn’t like that at all.

YouTube videos can’t be "spoofed." A YouTube user has a registered account. It’s not possible to upload a video without being logged in. If I wanted to upload a video and make everyone think it came from your account, this would be impossible for me to do. (Unless I somehow hacked their account, got ahold of their password, bypassed Google’s 2FA security, etc. It’s possible but very technical and involved.)

If I want to place a phone call and make it look like it comes from your phone number, literally the only thing I need is to know what your phone number is. There are publicly available services that allow anyone to do so with ease and get away with it. And that is what needs to stop happening.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Deregulation

"but it’s a fundamental error to believe government politicians and bureaucrats have better economic judgments and personal integrity than the general public and businessmen within that public."

  • and, the opposite is also true.
    Why would you believe what some business person tells you? I see a lot of ads that business wants me to believe.

"your government creates dramatically more big problems than it ever solves."
You do realize of course that government does the bidding of business.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Talk about word salad

When Ajit (gesundheit) Pai (lemon meringue seems appropriate) opens his mouth, nothing but sausage comes out. Different flavored sausages mind you. There’s Verizon sausage, AT&T sausage, Sprint sausage, TMobile sausage, Comcast sausage and etc. sausage (made from the bits and pieces of the other telecom/Internet companies contributions to the public good…err…).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Talk about word salad

but why bother? It’s not like he has any positive redeeming qualities… every time I hear his name I think that his parents named him after an idgit….

idjit. Derived from the Irish Slang word "Eejit", which means a person who is exceedingly Stupid or an Idiot. It was americanized and made "country" and slowly was changed into "Idjit" by southerners, and is exemplified by individuals who embrace both the name and what it means… Idgit Pai.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem with articles like this and with the main stream media

Is it really so hard to type "Only Faux and Info Wars weill tell the TRUTH about the secret sex slaves that Hillary kept under the pizza place."

Anytime I hear "Mainstream media" Pizzagate is the first thing, followed by all those actors pretending to be dead school children…

Joseph (profile) says:

Smart Phone Systems are the answer

Spoofing and other techs are very hard to combat and with VOIP (Voice of IP) picking up a lot of steam, the phone companies will have less of a hold on the market. The key is not to regulate the phone companies but build better phone systems that can block these unwanted calls. The system I blocks 99% of unwanted traffic and not just for me but for every client I have as I use a global database to identify and block robocalls. Also, using an auto attendant to force people to press a key, eliminates the robocalls from machines. Even a small delay will do this. While everything has a pro and con, I think innovation and new systems will be the answer to the problem as we know the government will not do anything meaningful.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Smart Phone Systems are the answer

yes — good answer/solution

a new phone "system architecture" is needed

kinda like the WINDOWS O/S series of PC software (and related hardware) — it worked pretty well for its time and was widely adopted — But eventually became very vulnerable to malware, hackers, and previously unknown design flaws.
Patching obsolete systems does not solve the overall deficiency.

Time to re-think our phone system basic design.

Paul Brinker (profile) says:

Re: Smart Phone Systems are the answer

First they added caller ID, Spammers got past that
Then they added the Do Not Call list, spammers used that list to spam more verified numbers.
After that they started playing the Disconnect signal to Spammers, spammers stopped paying attention to the signal.

There are more and better ideas, and Spammers will get past those as well unless we move to a far more secure phone system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Pai is abssolutely useless at everything except doing whatever the likes if Comcast, AT&T etc tells him to do!
The best thing is to have a Senator hospitalised, needing immediate, life saving surgery and the hospital is so inundated with robo calls that the surgeon cant be contacted!! That, perhaps, would make the rest of his buddies think about what needs to be done and actually do it, instead of ignoring everything except their own pockets! Bunch of useless wankers!

Anomalous Cowherd says:

Help me out here

It seems to me this could be solved with a new vertical service code (VSC, otherwise known as a "star" code). Assign *91 (as an example) to institute a chargeback of one cent ($0.01) to the originating number. SS7 should be sufficient to track origin/destination, time of day and length of call. If any local exchange carrier can’t determine how the calls originated from their network and identify the customer responsible then they would get stuck with the chargebacks. Debt collectors would suffer, but they will change their tactics. Obviously, there will have to be systems in place to prevent abuse of chargebacks.

What am I missing here? Is this a good idea? Are there better ideas than financially kneecapping repeat offenders? Is one cent too much? Too little?

I simply do not understand what’s wrong with empowering the owner of the phone to fine the originators of intrusive, obnoxious calls.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Help me out here

Good point. Most of those robocalls are quite literally automated using APIs provided by companies like Twilio. If we had some kind of star code as the previous poster suggested it may be enough to simply report the call. If the system pushes that report up to the originating system that system would be responsible for blocking the account holder, his payment methods, etc. Failure to take action could generate fines for the originating system, far more effective than trying to collect fees from the spammers.

Repeated failure to block spammers could result in more significant fines, something a company like Twilio would work hard to avoid. I like Twilio, I’ve used their API and their service is awesome. But they are very easily abused.

Paul (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Help me out here

Twillio is not actually the spam source, you have custom telcos that specialize in quick disconnect calling. They are the hidden middle man located outside the US that have networks designed to make hundreds of thousands of calls per hour.

This shadow system was well documented in the one case the FCC went after a US spammer. It continues to work simply because international standards on the phone exchange system have no method to block it short of cutting off international calls completely.

Christenson says:

Moderation, by a different name

Same problems, different context. No cost bad shit, so a few do it, at scale, and we all pay.

As it is, my phone rings more often with junk than not, so it is getting less and less useful, and I don’t think I am being particularly targeted.

Solution here is, at the top, pretty simple: mis-representing the origin of a call is on the carrier. Don’t know is only acceptable if the system handing them the call is identified; eg Bell South.
On top of that, microcharges or spam reporting will work pretty well.

Calls are automatable for a song; some friction needs to be imposed on them.

ECA (profile) says:

Hard wire phone system..

Fully digital system, that Cant track back to the originator..??
It cant tell you that its Out of COUNTRY?

They can Fake a Hard wire Phone system That is supposed to KNOW where everything comes from and goes to..
I would think the Restricted data is Cut off at the END, not the beginning.. and there is no verification along the line?
Seems it would be easy to track if they did this system properly..
ESP. if you are getting 10,000 calls into the USA, from 1 location..

That One Guy (profile) says:

'Can't' vs 'Don't want to'

And while Ajit Pai has promised to hold carriers accountable if they don’t, there’s absolutely nothing in Pai’s tenure so far that suggests he’s actually capable of standing up to carriers.

Assuming he hasn’t gutted the FCC’s power to such a degree that he literally can’t hold them accountable(which is entirely possible, and from his POV the goal I’m sure), it’s not that he’s not capable of holding them accountable, rather it’s that he’s not willing to do so.

He could do more than issues toothless ‘pretty please could you do/not do X’ statements, he just doesn’t want to because he has no interest in preventing them from doing anything they want(doesn’t do to upset your future employer after all).

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