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The government is finally cracking down on robocall enablers

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

The government has cracked down on some robocallers, even going so far as to fine one alleged robocaller $100 million.

But for a long time, companies that allow robocallers to use their services have been left to do their thing — and in the process unleashed billions of robocalls on the annoyed public. The involvement of many voice-over-IP — internet-based phone — companies in enabling robocalling has been a dirty secret in the telecom industry.  

Recently, the government has begun to crack down on companies that enable bad actors to scam and harass. This week, the Federal Communications Commission sent letters to six phone companies asking them to stop allowing international robocalls to enter the U.S., and to participate in traceback efforts to track down the sources.

This follows actions from the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission in reining in the companies that facilitate international robocalls.

“The last couple months have been a tremendous breakthrough in government enforcement,” Patrick Halley, of USTelecom, told Yahoo Finance. USTelecom runs the Industry Traceback Group, which consists of 30 telecom companies that trace origins of illegal robocalls. (Yahoo Finance’s parent company Verizon, is a member of this trade group.)

Halley said a paradigm shift is happening in the fight against robocalls. 

The FTC issued a new warning to internet-based phone companies about robocalls. (Getty Images)

“What you’re starting to see now is the government, federal and state, pay close attention to the originating voice providers who enable calls made in the face of evidence that the calls are illegal,” he said. “That’s a sea change.”

International calls 

Plenty of robocalls are domestic, but many come from abroad. Those callers need a way to get on U.S. networks, and a telecom company that is unable or unwilling to enforce the rules is a way to do so.

This week, the FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Rosemary Harold sent letters to All Access, Globex, Piratel, Talkie, Telcast, ThinQ, and Third Base, telling them they were used by robocallers as a “gateway into the U.S. telephone network,” according to USTelecom’s traceback program. Last year, the program tracked down 1,000 robocalling sources that represented over 1 million robocalls each, according to Halley. 

The letter added that these companies are “uniquely situated to assist government and industry efforts to combat spam robocalls,” which likely involve fake Social Security scams and other harmful practices.

The FCC is also requesting more information about how the companies facilitate international robocalls, whether these companies are doing anything to prevent robocalls, or are tacitly or even unsubtly endorsing this type of behavior, posing questions like: “Does All Access Telecom advertise its services in foreign countries?”

The letter makes it clear the information the FCC is requesting must be produced.

According to Halley, the FCC is letting these companies know it's not sufficient to merely participate in a traceback, but that they are obligated to take action when presented with evidence that their business is contributing to illegal robocalls.

‘Momentum’

The FCC’s latest action comes on the heels of the FTC and DOJ’s efforts to stem illegal robocalls. Last week, the Justice Department sued five companies and three individuals responsible for “carrying millions of robocalls.” 

The DOJ said it warned these parties to stop, “yet they continued to carry those calls and facilitate foreign-based fraud schemes targeting Americans. The calls, most of which originated in India, led to massive financial losses to elderly and vulnerable victims across the nation.”

The FTC also reminded 19 voice-over-IP providers that “assisting and facilitating” illegal robocalls is “against the law,” though did not move to punish them.

The momentum started a few months ago when the FTC and Ohio Attorney General went after a company called Globex, alleging “it helped promote a credit card interest reduction scheme.”

The lawsuit was originally just against the robocaller, “Educate Centre Services,” but the government added the phone company — a shift in the fight against illegal robocalls — saying the company “knew — or consciously avoided knowing” about what was going on. 

“This was the first time the FTC has done that,” Halley said. The DOJ followed. The FCC’s move, he added, was “part of the same momentum.”

For now, there’s no guarantee this will stop consumers from getting robocalls. But it’s clear that more enforcement is coming to an important link in the robocalling process. These companies are being held to a higher standard and will be forced to participate in efforts to combat scammers.

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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