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Robocalls are getting worse, FTC tells Senate

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

A representative with the Federal Trade Commission, home of the Do Not Call list, appeared in front of Congress to give a progress report on the fight against horrible spam robocallers — a modern-day battle of good and evil.

Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices, told a Senate Special Committee that the problem is intensifying, noting that “consumers are justifiably frustrated.”

“In 2016 the FTC received more than 3.4 million robocall complaints,” she said. “In 2017 the
FTC received more than 3.5 million robocall complaints just between January and August.”

With the problem getting worse, pressure is mounting on various government agencies — mainly the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission — to fight robocalls. (The problem, however, remains a partisan issue.) The aggravation stemming from these calls goes past mere annoyance. Many of these robocalls aren’t simply illegal marketing tactics but rather scams that cost the American public hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to Consumer Reports.

Automation causing more problems thanks to robocalls. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

What the FTC is doing to fight these calls

In front of the committee, Greisman outlined the agency’s progress thus far. The FTC has been slapping the wrists of various offenders, most notably DISH Network (DISH) which was hit with a $280 million penalty after making tens of millions of calls to customers.

But the bad news is the problem doesn’t stem from legitimate companies like DISH, but rather scam artists who are much more difficult to track. Thanks to VoIP technology and computer automatic dialing, millions of calls can cheaply and easily go out to consumers, often from foreign countries that are out of the FTC’s jurisdiction.

To combat this, the FTC has had some luck cooperating with some foreign agencies, and the agency has strategically targeted U.S.-based enablers. But it’s a tough process. These companies are “operated through a tangle of related individuals and entities to avoid detection by law enforcement,” Greisman said.

The amount of effort it takes to untangle the global web of calls is immense, and many communication companies do not have the records to track the offenders. Enforcement is downright sisyphean: With every head cut off, many take their place, to mix Greek metaphors.

Tech solutions are the key

The agency understands the limits of enforcement, and has tried to solve the problem by sponsoring tech solutions and apps to improve things. Technology hasn’t, however, made much of a dent yet.

From the phone side, device companies like Apple and Google may be able to provide a solution — they told Yahoo Finance they are addressing the problem though didn’t specify the means.

The most help may come from carriers themselves, the networks that facilitate these and send the spoofed caller ID information to phones. After the FTC and an industry-led “Robocall Strike Force” looked into the situation and found no widespread means to block robocallers, the Strike Force asked the FCC to clarify what calls carriers are currently allowed to block.

In response, the FCC announced that it would be looking into new rules to broaden what carriers can block, a potentially massive blow to robocallers that might not be able to continue their robocalls should call authentication standards improve.

There has been some success with this, in certain cases. The FTC outlined one positive result in its testimony: It has managed to crack down on fake Internal Revenue Service calls.

Fake IRS calls are extremely common and harmful, and the tax collectors are constantly warning consumers that they never initiate contact via phone. The FTC and the Robocall Strike Force worked with “a major (unnamed) carrier” and various federal law enforcement agencies to help block IRS scams. Many of these scams had taken the IRS impersonation to a new level, using advanced spoofing to put the agency’s well-known phone numbers on a recipient’s caller ID. “The Strike Force expanded this effort and it contributed to a decline in IRS scam calls at the end of 2016,” Greisman said.

By and large, however, the FTC during its testimony painted a picture of a small group fighting a shape-shifting enemy on a global scale. Greisman’s progress report left no clear answers, nor revealed a light at the end of the tunnel.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Confidential tip line: emann[at]oath[.com].

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