Apple, Google, Verizon, and Others Join Fight Against Robocalls
The federal government is stepping up efforts to protect consumers from robocalls—those unsolicited telephone calls that use computerized auto-dialers to deliver prerecorded messages. This summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) convened the first meeting of the Robo call Strike Force, a collection of phone hardware and software manufacturers and carriers banding together to tackle robocalls, which generate more than 200,000 consumer complaints to the FCC each year. More than 30 industry notables, including AT&T, Apple, Google, Verizon, and Comcast, have joined the organization, which pledges to foster greater adoption of call-blocking technologies and standards. The group will also look to end “spoofing,” a technique whereby companies placing robocalls deliberately falsify the telephone number and/or name relayed to caller ID systems to trick consumers into answering the calls and to skirt a number of consumer protections already in place.
“We know there is a problem. We know how much consumers dislike these calls,” FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a statement. “We know the public is frustrated because they assumed that after they registered for the ‘Do Not Call’ list, this would stop. It did not, so now is the time to take some real action.”
Companies like Nomorobo, Primus Telecommunications, and even Apple and Google have already created technology to block robocalls, and at least two bills have been introduced in Congress to make the technology more widely available to consumers and telephone service providers. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler sent a letter in July to the leading phone carriers, urging them to make the technology available to consumers at no cost.
Additionally, Congress is considering rewriting the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a law passed in 1991 to restrict telephone solicitations and the use of automated telephone equipment for marketing and consumer outreach. Many have called that law outdated.
Current legislation does allow some prerecorded messages that are purely informational, such as when a flight’s been canceled or
a school opening has been delayed because of snow. Other allowed calls include appointment or prescription refill reminders, political calls, and prerecorded messages from banks, debt collectors, telephone carriers, and charities, provided these organizations make the calls themselves and do not promote the sale of any goods or services.
Still, despite existing legal protections, American consumers are subjected to billions of robocalls every month, largely because of how cheap and easy they are to make. Roughly 2.4 million robocalls are placed to U.S. consumers every month, according to the YouMail Robocall Index.
Besides annoying consumers, the greater scourge is that robocalls are often tied to criminal activity that seeks to extract personal information from consumers.
Though robocalls are used mostly by unscrupulous marketers and overseas companies looking to prey on American consumers, some legitimate businesses have been caught up in litigation over even basic automated messages. Within the past year, Facebook, Yahoo, and AOL, for example, have been sued over text messages they sent to welcome new accounts.
And Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications industry analyst, sees it only getting worse. “This is a bad situation both for people who get robocalls and for the good companies who use telemarketing,” he says.
“The laws may very well be tightened, but that won’t solve the problems. It will only stop the good guys. The bad guys’ calls will still come to us from overseas using the Internet and VoIP.” Robocalling, Kagan adds, has given the entire telemarketing industry a black eye. “I don’t think we would dislike telemarketing so much if it weren’t for all the bad calls mixed in with the few good calls,” he says. “The bad guys have ruined it for the good companies once again.”
Kagan also calls into question any impact the new laws might have. “The problem is the U.S. has no power over the bad guys since they come from overseas,” he says. “The damage caused by the bad guys spoiling this fertile ground is much worse than any regulation.”