New Report Offers Solutions For Our Never Ending Robocall Hell

from the your-car-warranty-has-expired dept

We’ve noted several times how there are a few reasons why the U.S. government can’t get a handle on robocalls, despite big announcements every six months or so about how they’re cracking down on the practice and really mean it this time.

One of the biggest reasons is that neither the discourse, nor our solutions, generally make it clear that the biggest robocallers are “legitimate companies.” The focus for agencies like the FCC (something marketing, telecoms, banks, and others encourage) is generally and somehow exclusively on “scammers.” But scammers routinely make up the minority of robocalls:

Source: National Consumer Law Center

But we’re not really tackling truly illegal, scam robocalls either. Every single month U.S. residents receive an estimated 4 billion robocalls. About a billion of those are illegal, outright scammers. That’s more than 33 million illegal scam robocalls every day. As a result, 70% of Americans no longer answer the phone if it’s an unrecognized number. We’ve just ceded a major tech platform to scumbags.

The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) has spent years providing insights and solutions on this problem. They’ve issued a new report that’s worth a read if you’re at all curious why we’ve allowed a major communications platform to be hijacked by garbage merchants and snake oil salesmen.

The group has testified for years how numerous industries have lobbied to ensure robocall rules have vast loopholes, so their own harassment of consumers (using many of the same tools “scammers” use) isn’t included in any solution. This of course includes debt collectors, who have been shown to harass people they already know can’t pay with sometimes hundreds of calls per day.

The report also notes that the federal government routinely fails to hold major telecom providers accountable for doing too little (or nothing) to thwart specifically illegal, scam robocalls:

Even when these providers are told—sometimes repeatedly—that they are transmitting fraudulent calls, they keep doing it, because they are making money from these calls. And even when they are caught and told to stop, they are not criminally prosecuted, and the fines that are levied are rarely collected. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks has noted this counterproductive dynamic regarding robocalls: “[I]llegal robocalls will continue so long as those initiating and facilitating them can get away with and profit from it.”

Companies like AT&T have a long, rich history of turning a blind eye to the various scams on their networks, almost always because the company is getting a cut. The fines levied are usually a small fraction of the money that’s been gleaned over decades, and the vast, vast majority of FTC and FCC fines on this subject are never collected at all.

Again, the full report (pdf) makes it clear there’s a lot of reasons and a lot of culprits when it comes to U.S. robocall hell. And while there has been a good amount of progress on some fronts (requiring the application of SHAKEN/STIR tech to thwart number spoofing, for example) regulatory fecklessness and an unwillingness to play hardball with industry routinely raises its head:

for more than two years, the Commission has made it clear that it expects providers to couple STIR/SHAKEN (or other “reasonable measures” of call authentication) with reasonable use of call analytics, and that providers are permitted (but not required) to block calls likely to be illegal.116 In so doing, the Commission has placed the emphasis on reasonableness and provider discretion, rather than on effectiveness at actually stopping robocalls.

The report makes it repeatedly clear that the FCC, under both parties, likes to push forth solutions that are generally reactive and toothless, with enforcement to match. On page 26 the NCLC provides concrete steps to fix the problem; though if history is any indication they’ll be ignored.

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Comments on “New Report Offers Solutions For Our Never Ending Robocall Hell”

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Paul B says:

Re: Re: Do nothing is a strat

Threaten? He more or less filibusters anything because to do otherwise will always be seen as a Dem win if Dem’s are in power EVEN when the thing being done is a republican plan.

One entire party has become, elect us or we hole the country hostage AND be afraid if you ever try to take power since we get that power too!

Naughty Autie says:


The list itself looks suspicious. The header of the image is Top 50 Robocallers in the US: December 2021, but once all the repeats are removed, that number drops to 30. Now, I’m not denying that big companies can be big robocallers (hell, the more customers you have, the more incentivised you are to purchase software to do a human’s job), I’m only pointing out that by padding their data in this way, the National Consumer Law Center has given offenders plausible deniability. They should instead have stuck to a list of 30, consolidated the repeats, and then Citibank (whose name shows up four times) couldn’t have pointed to it as an indicator of ‘fraudulent data’.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:


well, a look at the source (or at least the april 2022 update) might help you understand.

They are tracking the originating line. Citibank has 4 separate lines, probably different call centers, all in the top 50 of robocallers. Thats why ‘unknown robocaller’ comes up multiple times in december 2021 – they track the originating line, not who they identify as the source of that line.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:


Politicians always do carve outs. “CAN SPAM but it’s ok for political speech.” “Stop the robocallers but not for political donation begs, speech, and whatever our friends with the lobby money want.” It’s not hard to see that our system will never fix this.

I put a CAPTCHA on my phone. Spam calls went from 4/day to 0. No more “Richard from the police benevolent association who’s just a well trained AI, no more car warranty, no more toner for the laser printer, no more winning free trips, etc.

If you have access to a VoIP server, it’s trivial and close to free. There are lots of providers offering that. I rolled my own. Callers have to answer the complex question of “What is two plus two.” When they train the AI to get that right, I’ll make it a more nebulous question.

Paul B says:


And the war between the Robocalls and Robo-blockers will rage on, soon all calls will have to solve complex encryption based on turning tests while mechanical turk’s start solving those tests in real time at a penny a test.

O wait, most of us will just only call our friends and simply ignore unknown numbers forever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I love answering these calls when I’m in the mood. I then proceed to play with them. I once managed to keep a scammer on the phone for 15 minutes by only speaking gibberish with the occasional comprehensible english word. Another favourite is to play dumb and keep asking why what I’m doing isn’t getting me the results they say I should see.
Hours of fun 🙂
Remember folks, if you keep them occupied for as long as possible, it means they can’t be scamming some little old lady out of here pension for that period.

anon says:

the only solution is....

Require all telecom companies that operate in the U.S. to stop accepting all calls from companies that forward robo-calls to them. If every US telelcom stops accepting calls from Reliance Jio or Airtel (both in India) because of robo-calls delivered, and this causes Reliance Jio and Airtel to lose all of their non-scam customers, well, too bad.

As it stands, SHAKEN/STIR or whatever mechanism that T-Mobile uses doesnt’ actually fix the problem because while the will tag the number ‘suspected scam’, they will still deliver the call and more importantly, GET PAID FOR THAT CALL. That defeats the whole purpose, and the only solution is to block all inbound calls from those telcos that provide services to scammers.

Naughty Autie says:


As it stands, SHAKEN/STIR or whatever mechanism that the DOJ uses doesn’t actually fix the problem because while they will tag the person ‘suspected burglar’, they will still release the person on bail and, more importantly, LEAVE THAT PERSON FREE TO BURGLE SOMEONE ELSE.

See the problem with your argument? What if the ‘suspected spammer’ is an ordinary individual who simply got a wrong number and you weren’t able to pick up the call the first time, causing them to have to call back? Are you honestly advocating that someone get punished for transposing a couple of numbers in the last four digits of their friend’s phone number?

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Illegal from the onset

Frankly, I don’tunderstand why anyone would buy from a robo-caller.

Robo-calling is illegal.

Why would anyone expect a quality product from a company that starts the business relationship by breaking the law?

I mean, think about it: you’re buying a home security system from a scofflaw…does that sound smart?

Maybe we coould discourage idiots from buying by imposing a 25% use tax on the buyer.

OGquaker says:

Re: scofflaw? WHO?

The Walgreen Company, in spite of paying out over $400 million in Federal Corrupt Practices fines in the last 15 years, got their own “Foreign-Trade Zone” in February of 2020: 2,000 acres in Mt. Vernon Illinois.

(Tesla’s Austin factory is the second largest factory of any kind in the US, 1.9m square feet on 2,000 acres)

For customs entry purposes, Walgreens is treated as if it is outside U.S. borders and no import-export tariff.

Bilvin Spicklittle says:

This is a simple problem to solve, and it has a 100% technical solution. No need for legislation or infrastructure.

It could be solved by exactly two companies, if those companies cared to do it: Apple and Google. Between the two of them, they make 99% of all phone devices… if not in the world, then in the markets that matter for the purposes of robocalling.

They could write phone apps that would give the user a configurable voice robot which can answer calls. Each user would configure it themselves, so that it uses their voice. This voice robot just attempts to waste as much time as possible for telemarketers.

It might be 5, 10, or even 30 minutes in some cases before the person became suspicious that they weren’t talking to a real person. Maybe the app could even record these, so that when you got a good one you could laugh with friends about it.

This would be an apocalypse for phone marketing. The longer these people spend talking to robots (of our own), the less money they make because they can’t grift real people. With all the iPhone and Android owners out there using this stuff, that would be a tiny fraction of what it is now… they’d struggle to ever talk to a real person.

This would literally be some side project for a Google engineer, same for Apple. They could succeed at what the FCC has failed on for decades.

Google’s an advertiser, so maybe they have some sympathy for their fellow lowlife grifters. But what of Apple? Why have they not done this?

Naughty Autie says:


It could be solved by exactly two companies, if those companies cared to do it: Apple and Google. Between the two of them, they make 99% of all phone devices… if not in the world, then in the markets that matter for the purposes of robocalling.

Here’s the thing you clearly don’t get: 1) Apple and Google make a high percentage of mobile device OSes between them, not phone devices. 2) Companies use landlines to contact customers, not mobile phones. 3) A lot of those companies’ calls are made through PCs rather than phones of any kind. 4) A lot of those PCs are running Windows rather than MacOS or Chrome. You were saying?

Bilvin Spicklittle says:

Re: Re:

Here’s the thing you clearly don’t get: Apple and Google make a high percentage of mobile device OSes between them, not phone devices.

I think you missed the point. Nothing about the hardware itself is even slightly important.

I outlined software that needs to be included by default in their OSs. And you think your confused counter-point is some big gotcha.

Companies use landlines to contact customers, not mobile phones.

This is software that needs to be on the mobile phone. So that it answers the robo-call and ties it up for as long as possible. Jesus wtf.

I can only hope that some judge has rescinded your voting rights and that you are safely monitored in a group home.

Sue says:


Solution. No person, no business, no corporation make call anyone unsolicited. If the recipient receives a call from an offending corporation, business or call centers the written document must be provided to the recipient indicating they agreed to receive calls. If this document cannot be provided within 10 days, the recipient will be awarded $1,000 per call. They do not call list is not effective, therefore if an individual receives a call that is not wanted nor solicited, they are able to file a complaint with the FCC AND WILL WIN THEIR CASE BY DEFAULT IF DOCUMENTATION IS NOT PROVIDED.

OGquaker says:

Re: Unpublished # was $0.50 /each month

When i paid PacBell/AT&T to NOT publish my phone number [oddly, their device was wired to my desk] i received a fair number of phone calls randomly from telephone companies selling “upgraded services”. YELLING INTO THE RECEIVER ABOUT MY EXPENSE WAS FUN but useless.

This never happened with “business” landlines i was buying from XO Communications

At the time, if you failed to drop your proper coins into a [bolted to a public wall] pay phone on a local call Before “dialing”, the hand device would emit a ear-spliting SCREECH after you entered the number, unless the number was distant, than no screech & a robovoice would speak the required amount.
I got an “Operator” to admit that this was to condition customers, cutting back the expense of a robovoice for local calls that were “free” to the owner of the pay phone.

Three Phone Co. “engineers” showed up two times when i was ordering landlines from a competing phone Co. They eventually fined me $180 for my moving their six lines to a common point on the back of the garage: one of PacBell’s had been routed on top of ivy parallel to an outside wall for a decade, other PacBell demarcation points were on other outside walls, all separately stretched airborne across the yard to the power pole.
Suckitup, pork bellys

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Not answering phone calls from unknown callers.

A while ago it was “Don’t open email from addresses you don’t know.” Spammers changed their database from “Hey I harvested this email and details” to “I harvested this email and details and here is everyone in their contacts list.”

Quickly the cross-referencing was done and now I get lots of email from “my friend” .

Soon the same will be true, and just add CLID spoofing, and that call from Aunt Minnie will be Jim from Auto Warranty.

A long time ago a wise person said “You can’t solve societal problems with technology.” I don’t remember who it was, but I remember thinking “Now that can’t be right!” I took that back on January 6th.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“As a result, 70% of Americans no longer answer the phone if it’s an unrecognized number. We’ve just ceded a major tech platform to scumbags. ”

Well if those other 30% would stop picking up the god damned phone…

There are no penalties.
It costs pennies to launch a robocall campagin.
The networks get paid, they like money more than anything else.
If even a tiny number of people fall for the scam its a success.
If they weren’t making money, they’d find a new scam.

The networks like money & the lack of will means the government won’t make their donors face anything that might cost them anything.
There isn’t a magical tech answer to this, its way simpler.
Get Grandma to stop answering unknown calls.
Get Grandma to understand that people can/will/do lie on the phone to them.
Maybe visit Grandma a bit more so she doesn’t feel lonely enough to answer any call she gets just for illusion of human contact.

Hey Karl, I have a TAC thought that you can chase better than I.
How many robocalls are they getting in Japan?
One wonders if a culture that respects older people have fewer older folks answering any call just to get human contact.

MindParadox (profile) says:

Re: tech answer

Actually, there is a tech answer. Each phone(including Voip phones) has a unique identifier. currently only cell phone networks use that unique identifier for access to the network.

If we applied that to the landline systems, we could actually set a limit to how many calls a given number/trunkline could send out in a given period.

or any number of other limits to reduce the amount of scam calls.

obviously, the nuclear option would be to remove any anonymity on phones and require them all to be tied to a specific person for identification, but that has so many problems with it it’s not worth exploring

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: LRNs and ANI

First, if you’re referring to LRNs, not only is that for inbound calls only, but unfortunately that doesn’t apply to end-users except for landlines. For Cell and VoIP, as far as the PSTN is concerned that’s not YOUR phone, but that of your provider.

If you’re referring to ANI, that’s indeed outbound, but unfortunately that doesn’t apply to end-users except for landlines (POTS/1FBs) and PRIs. Depending on your cell carrier, it may be that they deliver ANI=CLID, but nobody outbounds spam on a cellular service, so it’s moot here.

A call-center or robo-call operation will initiate calls with the ability to spoof CLID, and their upstream may set ANI=CLID which makes this ineffective.

One could “regulate” or “legislate” that each carrier must ensure that incoming calls from end-users destined for the PSTN must be valid, but the side effect of that is that the end-user can only have one upstream and no redundancy.

This COULD be resolved by those regulations/legislation requiring upstream to route in OTHER providers’ numbers providing they have a client relationship with the end-user of that number. It would be akin to a “port-in request without any actual port-in”.

Benefits: no spoofing CLID. All calls have an originator that can be tracked, indexed, totaled, and slow-started.

I don’t see our government doing anything that serious about it. It would reduce THEIR ability to spam us with donation requests and “political speech.”

Take as an example how much “squeaking” and “bruhaha” exists just for an NPA overlay or split, and that requires zero paperwork, and about 1 minute of programming per large swath of dialed numbers. The requirement above would require lots of paperwork for EACH TN you intend to use.

Max Power says:

I do not agree with the article

By far, the most numerous robocalls come from scammy/shady operators, not established, well-known companies.

With respect to the FCC’s efforts… they have actually forced some significant technical mandates on telecom operators which should begin reducing the flood of illegal robocalls at some point. The biggest issue has been that two of the most egregious types of telecom companies which facilitate illegal robocalls – small voip provides and foreign gateway providers have been exempt from these mandates. However, the loopholes are slowly closing… starting at the end of June 2022 the most problematic of the small voip providers will be required to implement the new technical mandates (and all of them by June 2023) and all foreign gateway providers will have to implement by June 2023.

Paul says:

Reducing Robocalls

My small office has an easy fix with Business Comcast internet phone service. To talk to the front desk #1, to talk to me #2, to talk to my business partner #3. The message tells the caller the 3 options. If nothing is chosen they have a second chance after the message repeats. After two chances it hangs up and they can’t leave a message. The call log show a bunch of calls, but the phone doesn’t ring. I don’t know why this hasn’t been applied to cell phones. If scammers and/or telemarketers want to have a real person call me and go through the hurdles so be it, but robocalls can’t figure this out.

MindParadox (profile) says:

The amount of robo and other spam/scam calls I’ve gotten is so bad that currently, if i don’t recognize the number, it gets blocked permanently.

I currently have a little over 12 thousand numbers on my blocklist, and it grows daily.

I can’t wait till there’s an app I can download that will simply auto block any number I don’t already have saved in my phone to save me the trouble.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


Wait… this exists… I think.
I know that for a long time cellphones could be locked down to only let the user dial specific people… restricted dial iirc.
I thought (mental drift net average is off due to heat thou) that there was a phone designed for kids that could only call like 3 preprogrammed numbers but also would only accept calls from those numbers.

Nailed it says:

This article nailed it

So its a TCPA violation for phone companys to allow hang up calls. I asked AT&T for a record of the number of minutes each call I receive. “AT&T no longer provides that kind of detailed statment”, Im like…really, why? Because it will show that they have done NOTHING to curb robo/spoof calls. Meanwhile, I have to pay a monthly fee for active armour proctection me from getting this calls…Its so outragous, we cant make it up.

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