John Oliver Robocalls Ajit Pai For Not Doing More To Thwart Robocalls

from the ill-communication 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. Consumers continue to be hammered by mortgage interest rate scams, credit card scams, student loan scams, business loan scams, and IRS scams. 4.9 billion such calls were placed in February alone:

You might recall that HBO's John Oliver caused Ajit Pai's FCC no shortage of trouble when his coverage of net neutrality drove millions of pissed off consumers to the FCC website to complain. The FCC then got into a bit of hot water (and remains under investigation by the GAO and others) after falsely claiming those angry website visitors were part of a malicious DDOS attack. In reality, emails confirmed FCC staffers were simply trying to craft an alternative explanation to try and downplay massive public opposition to the Trump FCC's policies.

Fast forward to last weekend, and Oliver again brought some much-needed attention to the FCC's apathy, this time on the subject of robocalls. The whole missive is well worth a watch if you haven't seen it already:

Oliver's bit (which involves robocalling all five FCC commissioners) does a stellar job highlighting that the previous FCC passed new rules to rein in the robocall threat. But those rules were struck down by the courts after a lawsuit by the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, a group representing debt collectors (Pai celebrated the ruling at the time). To be clear, Pai has done a few notable things to try and crack down on the problem, ranging from slightly expanding (pdf) carrier abilities to try and block the calls, to issuing major fines against particularly-obvious scammers.

But as Oliver notes, there's a lot more Pai's FCC could do, like demanding big carriers offer their customers free robocall protection services, actually punishing those lagging behind at adopting anti-spoofing authentication tech, and narrowing the definition of robocalls to include debt collection and other purportedly "legit" but overwhelming callers. But that would require Pai actually standing up to major industries, something he's yet to do at any meaningful point during his appointment as FCC boss.

As it stands, predictions are that by next year, half of all calls made will be robocalls. And while companies like AT&T spent a few years trying to blame everybody else for its own failure to police the problem, it's one of several carriers finally on the cusp of deploying SHAKEN/STIR authentication technology that should dramatically put a damper on caller ID spoofing later this year. But evolving scammer tactics and lagging carriers means that to solve this problem, the FCC will need somebody willing to actually punish companies that refuse to do more.

Filed Under: ajit pai, consumer protection, fcc, john oliver, robocalls


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 6:24am

    God News

    Robocalls are simply an expression of a healthy, unregulated market.
    There is competition between various robo-call firms to improve the quality and quantity of robo-calls, and it's working as intended!
    We do not need government interference in this wonderful expression of free enterprise. These companies are creating jobs, and have paid good money to use the phone system as they see fit.
    What is there not to like about this situation? It's free speech - something everyone here should be standing up for right? All the speech all the time!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:01am

      Re: God News

      To a certain extent, yes.

      Hope they like me not answering.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DudeWasHere (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:31am

      Re: God News

      This is a prime example of an unhealthy market. Free speech does not apply to invading personal privacy. My phone is not a public space. I did not pay for a phone to hear from unsolicited callers dial me about whatever. Unless a unsolicited caller is willing to pay a fee to me for time and patience, at my option, then they should not be legally allowed to call period.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
        identicon
        Sven Golly, 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:53am

        "DudeWasHere" was NOT here for five years!

        Near exactly five year gap to 2014.

        Second definite ZOMBIE that I noticed this week; though there are others been out for a while, like JD and jdc, with inexplicable long gaps, and then "Scary Devil Monastery" which made one comment, resumed after 5 years, and now like "Gary" is up to a 400 per year rate with ardent support of Techdirt.

        Inexplicable except as astro-turfing.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Rocky, 13 Mar 2019 @ 4:40pm

          Re: "DudeWasHere" was NOT here for five years!

          Do you need a new tinfoil hat perhaps?

          Not everyone can be as an ardent follower of techdirt as you are. Most people actually have a life where they do other stuff than coming up with conspiracy theories on sites they hate.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Mar 2019 @ 9:18am

          Re: "DudeWasHere" was NOT here for five years!

          "Second definite ZOMBIE that I noticed this week; though there are others been out for a while, like JD and jdc, with inexplicable long gaps, and then "Scary Devil Monastery" which made one comment, resumed after 5 years..."

          Yeah, see, if you knew what astroturfing WAS then you'd realize that anyone consistently posting under one and the same nick is an absolutely shit astroturfer. And taking a hiatus from the internet for a few years is pretty normal if you have a real life.
          Once you grow up and get a job and/or kids you'll know all about that, Baghdad Bob.

          The lithmus test of an astroturfer is when you find a group of brand-new nicks with half a dozen comments to their name suddenly weighing in on a controversial issue where the resident troll just got curbstomped.

          Like "Sven Golly", for instance - you ironically show up to prove the point i just made by continuing a marginalization attempt your last sock puppet failed to render as well.

          Here's a hint, Baghdad Bob - you can't bullshit people when the evidence that you're wrong is all over the page they're reading.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:17am

        Re: Re: God News

        He's being sarcastic. He's making fun of a particular Libertarian crank who...I actually haven't seen around lately.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 1:48pm

        Re: Re: God News

        Unless a unsolicited caller is willing to pay a fee

        "You are trying to connect to 'name'. By connecting this call you agree to a $2500 a minute fee minimum of 10 minutes"

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:40am

      Re: Goad News

      ...oh, hilarious sarcasm {?}

      but seriously folks, how is it a fundamental duty and responsibility of government ... to stop robocalls ?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Gary (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:53am

        Re: Re: Goad News

        but seriously folks, how is it a fundamental duty and responsibility of government ... to stop robocalls ?

        The ones that are fraud, or the other ones? (And is Fraud just an example of caveat emptor, and not in need of government interference?)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:02am

          Re: Re: Re: Goad News

          One might imagine the IRS would be interested in the calls from folk claiming to be collecting back taxes.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        jupiterkansas (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:59am

        Re: Re: Goad News

        The government exists to protect consumers from business (and business from consumers) so if there is an abuse either way, who else has a fundamental duty and responsibility to deal with that abuse aside from the government?

        It is effectively harassment.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:23am

        Re: Re: Goad News

        but seriously folks, how is it a fundamental duty and responsibility of government ... to stop robocalls ?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communications_Act_of_1934

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Dysheen, 14 Mar 2019 @ 12:57am

        Re: Re: Goad News

        It is the government's job, they have a division dedicated to it, it's called the Federal Communications Commission or FCC for short. I don't think the government should be in everyone's business, but I do believe the government should help the citizens who pay for into it. You know they're supposed to serve us, right?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Mar 2019 @ 9:24am

        Re: Re: Goad News

        "...but seriously folks, how is it a fundamental duty and responsibility of government ... to stop robocalls ?"

        It's not.

        It isn't in their job description to stop random religious nutcases from following you down the street persistently reading you scripture either. Nevertheless they've made laws which enable that friendly neighborhood officer to take the crank aside and ask him to stop or sit it off in the slammer for disturbing the peace.

        There are laws protecting citizens from undue harassment which robocalls ostensibly falls under. The problem is that those existing laws fail enforcement due to scale when they hit the online environment.

        I'm not sure that's fixable, to be sure. And I'm inclined to believe any possible fix will have to come from the end points rather than legislation which simply can't address the issue online.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dan (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:22pm

      Re: God News

      I agree these calls are free speech. But put people on those phone lines. Then we'll see how badly those marketers want to reach consumers by paying the salaries. They will certainly be good "starter jobs".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Mar 2019 @ 7:24am

        Re: Re: God News

        "I agree these calls are free speech."

        .. and me not answering any of them is also free speech.

        Your solution might work if the spammerz were within the jurisdiction of law enforcement, as I understand it these folk are on some island probably in the Caribbean and they do not care about any laws.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Paul Clark, 13 Mar 2019 @ 6:24am

    A good Start

    John Oliver's Robocalling is a good start but he can only call each commissioner every 90 minutes. We need another 89 people to do the same thing so that the commissioners get called every minute. That would be about the number of calls I get around supper time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 11:12am

      One call every 90 minutes.

      Is that one call from each phone line? Because I'm sure Oliver's budget is enough for 89 more phone lines. Maybe even the clerks to mind the phones.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 1:00pm

        Re: One call every 90 minutes.

        This is voice over IP. There are no "lines", and no clerks needed (just the one tech person who got it going).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 1:36pm

          Re: Re: One call every 90 minutes.

          If Oliver's tech did it right he'll cycle the numbers he's calling from so that they're impossible to block. Y'know, like the scammers do.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 6:26am

    More importantly though, John Oliver also has a larger Reese's coffee mug. So check AND mate, Pai.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 6:28am

    Robocalls for life for Pai!!!!!!!

    Question - Perhaps consumers should file complaints with the FTC, since the FCC is stupid. Consumers are paying (in the case of POTS) a large amount of cash for caller id or caller id w/ name, under the impression it informs you who is calling you... but it just shows random shit to you that has no basis in reality. If we're paying for a service that is supposed to tell us who is calling & it fails to do that job isn't that misleading consumers while pocketing cash for a service that doesn't work as advertised?

    Asking b/c I think the FCC won't make them change, but a couple billion in fines & forced refunds to customers who were ripped off might encourage them to get of their asses and fix this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bobvious, 13 Mar 2019 @ 7:17am

      Re: Robocalls for life for Pai!!!!!!!

      Maybe this is where Out_Of_Lube has its complaint with Google Pirates. All those mailing lists being hacked by news snippets are preventing Sanford from robocallspamming everyone like the punchline in all those movies it wrote that Hollywood is going to release anytime now, if only the search_engines_with_deep_pockets would get off its damn lawn.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Mar 2019 @ 9:27am

        Re: Re: Robocalls for life for Pai!!!!!!!

        "Maybe this is where Out_Of_Lube has its complaint with Google Pirates."

        I thought his knickers were in a twist because Google refuses to give him (and every other self-titled author) up-front money for nothing? Once you remove all the obvious falsehoods his personal opinion on that is all that's left.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:49am

      Re:

      It's a runaround of alphabet soup agencies - FCC will refer you to FTC, if it's a money scam they'll send you to the USPS, and if you annoy the Postmaster enough, will send you to ...

      The Secret Service. "Technolegally", most of those scams are wire fraud.

      And...... after wasting six hours of your life dealing with all those agencies, you get... six hours of your life gone that you'll never get back.

      At best, they'll "add your name to a list of complaintants", which never seems to be available...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:53am

      Re:

      The simpler fix is to do away with CID.

      And allow everyone to use ANI instead (Automatic Number Identification). ANI is what the cops use - so they're not "really" lying on their ads when they say "And we don't have Caller ID".

      ANI is from the telco, not from the calling packet, so it it's spoofed, it's the telco spoofing it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:19am

        Re: Re:

        CID rarely every shows anything, any way. I get tons of calls from unknown numbers, some not even remotely valid phone numbers. I've gotten to the point where I don't answer any call I don't recognize the number for AND am expecting a call from.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Bamboo Harvester (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 12:09pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I whitelisted half a dozen numbers on my cell phone, any calls not from those numbers go silent.

          That phone is only for family and a couple of friends.

          The number I give when forced is a Google Voice number, I just browse the transcripts of their Voice to Text Email every other day or so. Usually about 20-30 calls to it per day, maybe three calls in any given month are NOT scammers.

          I helped one of my tenants get an obamaphone. He gets over 200 calls and texts per day on it, pretty much all "loan" offers. Looks like they sell the obamaphone numbers to every 28% Easy Credit Terms company as they issue them. The phone is effectively worthless for inbound calls because of that.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 1:39pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          If the "number" doesn't come up as an entry in my contacts list I don't answer. They can leave a message if it's important and I'll call them back. If they don't leave a message their number gets quickly blocked. I know the number is spoofed but they tend to use the same number for a couple days.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            JoeCool (profile), 16 Mar 2019 @ 9:39am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            That's the way I look at it - if they can't be bothered to leave a message, I can't be bothered to talk with them. And even when they do leave a message, it's usually spam. Spectrum is really bad - they call from a different number every time they call to bug me about signing up for their streaming service.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Carlie Coats, 13 Mar 2019 @ 7:15am

    And basically the FCC does nothing about violations of the Federal "Do Not Call" ordinance, either. (Oh, they do have a web-page, https://complaints.donotcall.gov/complaint/complaintcheck.aspx, where they appear to pay lip-service and then do nothing...)

    As it stands, violations are supposed to be subject to $500 statutory damages ($1500 for repetitions, or for various technical failures), but my legal costs for suing will be a lot more than that -- if I can find out the caller who violated the law, something made far more difficult by number-spoofing.

    Instead: call-ID spoofing in violation of the Federal Do Not Call ordinance should constitute aggravated violation, for which the penalties should be: $5000 statutory damages plus costs plus reimbursement for the carrier for investigating to find the identity of the violator.

    If such penalties were in place, they could provide a far more productive arena for the efforts of ambulance-chasers for a while, and would serve to reduce the problem greatly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John85851 (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:11am

      Re:

      And how would the penalties be enforced? Remember that we're talking about companies that have no problem spoofing their number (which should be illegal), using automated callers (which is illegal in most states), and hiding their identity (which should be illegal).
      And if the company is found, will they be operating outside the US? Will the US government really go after robocall spammers when they're too busy enforcing the War on Drugs?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        carlie coats, 13 Mar 2019 @ 11:28am

        Re: Re:

        Civil suit -- just as the law presently allows.

        However, if Verizon (etc.) could get $10K in cost reimbursement for tracking down the spoofer to support my suit (in addition to my statutory $5K+legal costs), then they might be willing to try to help. Right now, they aren't.

        And that would push the penalty up significantly...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:13am

    There is a special place in hell for robocallers, right next to spammers. In a just world, Pai would end up in hell receiving robocalls every 30 seconds for the rest of eternity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:24am

      Re:

      Is that above or below the special place in hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 8:51am

      Re: Why waste the 30 secs.?

      A constant background of audio; comments supporting net neutrality being read only to be interrupted by robocalls.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 11:17am

      In Good Omens

      There's a point that a demon escapes an answering machine thanks to a telemarketer. It promptly eats the telemarketer and then all her colleagues at the same office. Pratchett points out that in doing so, the drop in ambient annoyance actually tilted the good / evil scale towards the good side, and how this is a common problem playing for Big Evil.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 4:40pm

        Re: In Good Omens

        Just read that bit this morning, coincidentally.

        Out of curiosity, what makes you think it was Pratchett, not Gaiman? Any reference for that, or just the general vibe? Because I agree, that passage struck me as more Pratchett-y than Gaiman-y, but I'm not exactly sure why.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Rocky, 13 Mar 2019 @ 5:12pm

          Off Topic - In Good Omens

          Just a FYI, Good Omens are premiering on Amazon May 31st as a TV-series.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Uriel-238 (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:50pm

          Pratchett vs. Gaiman

          Having read a bit of both, the part about how the demon ended up serving the higher good just smacked to me more of Pratchett.

          I am guessing.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Mar 2019 @ 9:29am

          Re: Re: In Good Omens

          Good Omens (the book) was co-authored by both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. So they've both left their mark on that story.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Thad (profile), 14 Mar 2019 @ 11:20am

            Re: Re: Re: In Good Omens

            Certainly, and Gaiman has said that their collaborative process basically meant that both of them worked on every part of the book. I'm just questioning whether a particular passage was written by one or the other of them.

            It appears there's no way of knowing for sure about that specific passage, but Uriel and I are in agreement that it sounds like Pratchett.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:08am

    and narrowing the definition of robocalls to include debt collection and other purportedly "legit" but overwhelming callers

    Shouldn't that be "expanding" the definition?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    The Baker, 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:26am

    Is there a way to quantify the results? How many more calls is the FCC getting after this aired?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:50am

    Regarding the "debt collection" calls -- I've got some of those on my Google Voice number. The number's unlisted, and located in a blue collar area of the US. I've had the number since Google Voice was Grand Central.

    Since I don't use the number for anything personal other than as a local exchange so people don't have to pay me long distance to call, and I have no debt to collect on, these things are an obvious scam.

    I just hope that by using GV, I'm doing my part as the same calls are tracked going to other customers and eventually flagged.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:50am

    anecdotal info: network based issue

    I just switched cell providers from ATT to T-Mobile and I kept my same number.

    On ATT I was getting 8-10 spam calls a day. That has dropped to close to zero with T-Mobile. I might get 1 every other day or so. T-Mobile has their own pre-installed app on the new phone I got, the deals with spam calls. I used Mr. Number on ATT, but that still let so much through.

    My theory is that ATT is taking the short game approach with means they either doesn't give a shit, or they are somehow monetizing the spam calls.

    T-Mobile on the other hand is playing the long game and would prefer a more satisfied customer.

    I still have a landline (only because FIOS would cost me more if I dropped it) which I have totally given up on. That line gets 20+ spam calls a day.

    Just my thoughts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bruce C., 13 Mar 2019 @ 9:50am

    Too bad...

    Oliver and company aren't spoofing the Cheeto-in-chief's phone number on the caller ID of their robo-calls.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glen, 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:06am

    I use Google's call screener. It is actually a lot of fun to see them connected through the introduction only to hang up afterword.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Iggy, 13 Mar 2019 @ 10:22am

    As it stands, predictions are that by next year, half of all calls made will be robocalls

    Just half? Most of my calls now are robocalls. While I was unemployed, I had some fun messing with them and in one case even had a solar panel installer drive an hour and a half to a phony address and then back (he was not pleased). I have some funny recordings to show for it. Now that I work, the calls are just annoying. Sigh.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 11:02am

    Please somebody tell me the fcc commissioners are actually being robocalled with that amazing piece of art. If it is actually happening I might have to convert and start worshiping Oliver.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DebbyS (profile), 13 Mar 2019 @ 12:43pm

    Robocalls and scammers

    A fun way to spend some time is visit YouTube and search "Scam Baiting". More and more people are fighting back in clever ways and posting their efforts on videos. Some hackers (and one must be quite skilled) are destroying scammer computers by turning the tables on those who lie, cheat and steal. Other baiters are doing deep investigations of scamming companies and posting what they find. If governments can't/won't stop scammers for whatever reason, then regular folks can warn the elderly and other innocent people and keep them from becoming victims. Hey, even stores like Target warn folks who want to purchase a large number of iTunes and other cards that the IRS does not accept such payments...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 14 Mar 2019 @ 11:56am

    Covered in the same LWT ep but slightly off topic

    The encounter between the Time Magazine Journalist and Samantha West, the robocalling woman who could not say I am not a robot has gotten a bit of attention. The company that... deployed Samantha is not saying who or what she is (and has since taken her down). And no-one is sure what technology was used to make her work.

    Alongside being unable to say I am not a robot she also couldn't say what vegetable is in tomato soup, and was unable to pass other robot / human tests.

    It doesn't seem related to the Google assistant technology that can call on someone's behalf.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2019 @ 5:00am

    Video unavailable

    The uploader has not made this video available in your country.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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