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.

Filed Under: ajit pai, fcc, hospitals, robocalls, spam


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 6:15am

    Deregulation

    You want free enterprise and Reaganesque de-regulation?
    It's the phone company's equipment and government has no business telling them how to run it. Making the phone companies "do" something to stop robocalls is unnecessary government regulation stifling the people. Go Ayn rand!

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:07am

      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.

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

      • icon
        Gary (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:14am

        Re: Re: Deregulation

        And yet you seem to be proudly proclaiming that it would be wrong for government to step in and fix this.
        Involving the government can only make things worse, eh?

        Ayn Rand's dying words - "More free medical care please!"

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

        • identicon
          Michael, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:49am

          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.

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

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:56am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Deregulation

            There is a difference that make regulation of the carriers but not YouTube the right approaches. You can choose what to watch on YouTube, but without the carriers help, you cannot easily choose who phones you.

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

            • icon
              Gary (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 8:05am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

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

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 11:02am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Deregulation

              without the carriers help, you cannot easily choose who phones you.

              That may have been true in the pre-caller-ID days. It's not so hard with smartphones. That doesn't help hospitals...they'll need to take calls from unknown numbers.

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

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 11:14am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Deregulation

                If everybody you know rejects calls and texts from unknown numbers, how do you contact anyone if you lose your phone, if you are stranded with a dead or lost phone, or have to replace it with a new phone on a new number.

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

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 11:32am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Deregulation

                  You don't*. "Choose who phones you" isn't technically difficult but isn't a great solution either.

                  (*Actually in some of those circumstances you could email them, if you know your email password, or use any online messenger.)

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

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 11:48am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Deregulation

                  Leave a message. They'll hear it, know it is you and call you back.

                  I already screen every unknown number and I've had no problems with being reachable.

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

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2019 @ 6:07am

            Re: 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.

            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.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 2:59pm

        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.

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

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 6:31am

    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...).

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:54am

      Re: Talk about word salad

      When Ajit (gesundheit) Pai (lemon meringue seems appropriate) opens his mouth, nothing but sausage comes out.

      What do you expect when he is busy "sucking" up to those he should be regulating?

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

      • icon
        Optical Point (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:12am

        Talk about word salad...and sausages

        Turns out Ajit’s sucking the sausage with all of his Benjamin’s while us taxpayers are being t-bagged by his associates.

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

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:21am

      Re: Talk about word salad

      You know, there's rather a lot to criticize about Ajit Pai without resorting to "hee-hee, he has a funny foreign-sounding name."

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:25am

        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.

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

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 4:03pm

          Shooting your own foot

          but why bother?

          Because it's counter-productive and helps the one being criticized by allowing them to dismiss otherwise valid points as coming from someone not worth taking seriously.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:27am

        Re: Re: Talk about word salad

        Thank you for that; I agree. I automatically discount any post that includes making childish fun of someone's name or other attributes. It completely undermines any gravitas the poster may have otherwise had and reflects poorly on their own character.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:00am

    The problem with articles like this and with the main stream media always is:

    "Is this true of false?"

    I.E.

    "Is this just someone attempting to drum up business with a soft sell?"

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

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 8:10am

      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...

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

  • icon
    Joseph (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:01am

    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.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:54am

      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.

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

    • identicon
      Paul Brinker, 24 Jun 2019 @ 1:31pm

      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.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 3:02pm

        Re: Re: Smart Phone Systems are the answer

        I do not answer any more, if it is important they can leave a message - but I do not even listen to those either when I do not know the caller

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

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:42am

    Job interview

    Pai is just biding his time until he gets a nice cushy overpaid job from Verizon.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 8:04am

    Something is trying to be done with this garbage. It's called SHAKEN/STIR.

    https://www.fcc.gov/call-authentication

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 8:24am

    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!

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

  • identicon
    Anomalous Cowherd, 24 Jun 2019 @ 8:57am

    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.

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

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:22am

      Re: Help me out here

      How would you assess the fine? The FCC has levied millions in fines against overseas spammers/fraudsters. They haven't been able to colled one dime.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:29am

        Re: Re: Help me out here

        cant collect from 'home' spammers, let alone 'offshore' ones. mind you, the biggest reason can only be because those companies are lining pockets of certain individual(s) at the FCC, who will remain nameless, and that's much cheaper!

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:32am

        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.

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

        • identicon
          Paul, 25 Jun 2019 @ 1:06am

          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.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 11:04am

        Re: Re: Help me out here

        The obvious way to collect the fine would be to do so in advance, i.e., use a deposit system. And aren't the US telcos already being paid to carry these calls?

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

  • identicon
    Christenson, 24 Jun 2019 @ 9:55am

    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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 11:41am

    Make the telephone numbers premium rate and reimburse genuine callers.

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 12:15pm

    Hard wire phone system..

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

    REALLY??
    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..

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 2:30pm

    '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).

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Jun 2019 @ 4:34pm

    Want this fixed?

    Lets launch a go fund me for about $200.
    We use the money to have one of these scam firms target the offices & private lines of Congress.
    It'll be law by Thursday.

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

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 Jun 2019 @ 3:01pm

    Thank Goodness -- the FCC is on the job!

    The FCC will hire a company to automatically call each and every single American to assure us that thy are working hard to end robo calls.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2019 @ 7:15pm

    Richard Bennett's FCC turns out to be an ineffectual, overpaid, corrupt dumpster fire. Wow, who would have fucking guessed?

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


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