Why U.S. Robocall Hell Seemingly Never Ends
from the your-car-warranty-has-expired dept
According to the YouMail Robocall Index, there were 3.6 billion U.S. robocalls placed last December, or 115 million robocalls placed every single day. That’s 4.8 million calls placed every hour. Despite the periodic grumble, it’s wholly bizarre that we’ve just come to accept the fact that essential communications platforms have been hijacked by conmen, salesmen, and debt collectors, and we’re somehow incapable of doing anything about it.
it?s wild we?ve come to accept as a fact of life that neither the government nor the multibillion dollar telecoms it?s apparently beholden to can do anything at all to stop our super high-tech communications networks from being totally overrun by scams everyday, nonstop.
— Dell Cameron (@dellcam) January 11, 2022
Every 6-12 months or so the federal government comes out with a “new plan to finally tackle robocalls,” yet the efforts only frequently make a small dent in the problem. One reason why is that each time the federal government unveils a new plan, it focuses exclusively on scammers. Said plan (and therefore the entire press coverage of said plan) discusses robocalls as if it’s only something velour track suit clad dudes in Florida strip malls are engaging in.
Folks like Margot Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) has testified before Congress for years about how the biggest robocallers are often legitimate companies, usually selling you services you don’t want, or harassing people they know can’t pay overdue bills with sometimes hundreds of calls per day. The group notes that as of last month, scammers continued to make up the minority of overall robocalls:
The issue has long been that the marketing and financial industries doesn’t want any of this to change, and their influence on Congress, regulators, and policymakers generally means that solutions carve out large loopholes in rules that weaken their effectiveness. And their influence on the courts has consistently eroded what agencies like the FCC can do about much of it. Last April, a Supreme Court ruling (Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid) effectively nullified the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones without your consent.
So folks like Saunders keep pointing out while we have a patchwork array of rules that sometimes limit pre-recorded robocalls, the rules governing annoying spam texts or live robocalls are negligible at best:
“A lot of the live calls that are survey calls and debt collection calls to cell phones that are so annoying to people are made with automated dialers,? Saunders said. ?There is at the moment no way of controlling those calls unless the called party individually blocks the caller.”
The onus is, as it often is in the case of patchy and flimsy U.S. consumer protection, shifted entirely to the consumer to tackle the problem themselves. Especially in a country where Congress struggles to pass any law that might dent the revenues of the nation’s biggest and most politically powerful companies (see: net neutrality, privacy, climate, etc.). The lobbying of these companies does more than just weaken court and regulatory oversight. It has resulted in a discourse where robocalls are framed as only a problem involving scammers, not everyday companies (note the heavy presence of telecoms and banks on the list above) that utilize many of the same dodgy tactics as the scammers.
While that broader problem isn’t changing anytime soon, one immediate area that could be cracked down on are so-called “gateway providers,” who act as a proxy here in the U.S. for robocalls originating overseas:
“Gateway providers, and other originating providers, use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to transmit voice and text messages over the internet to American landlines and cell phones. As an entry point into the American telephone network for foreign callers, gateway providers and the service providers that accept calls from the gateway providers are in a unique position to arrest the flow of harmful scam calls and illegal robocalls. Many illegal robocalls, especially the worst scam calls, originate overseas and are passed through U.S. gateway providers to complicit intermediary providers and then transmitted to American telephones.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. Pressure to force wireless carriers to speed up deployment of technology that can help block robocallers who spoof their phone numbers (like SHAKEN/STIR) have netted some results. But we’re still drowning in robocalls thanks to loophole-filled rules, inconsistent oversight, a corrupted court system, and a generalized fear of holding large, legitimate robocallers accountable for doing too little to protect their customers. Truly fixing the problem will require doing something U.S. policymakers don’t like doing: holding larger companies accountable for failure, and crafting laws that aren’t utterly polluted and defanged by lobbyist influence.