Why Do Robocalls Continue In An Age Of “Do Not Call” And Strict Telemarketing Rules?

Even though millions of Americans are on the federal Do Not Call list to limit unwanted telemarketing calls, and even though it’s illegal for anyone to make a commercial prerecorded robocall to a consumer who hasn’t given their express consent to receive such calls, the problem persists and is getting worse, with no cure-all solution in the offing.

During a panel discussion on robocalling this morning at the Consumer Federation of America’s Consumer Assembly in D.C., the Federal Trade Commission’s Lois Greisman explained that the number of telemarketing complaints has been “skyrocketing” in recent years, with the FTC receiving anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000 complaints per month, with robocalls responsible for around 60% of those complaints.

“If this were a disease, it would be an epidemic,” noted panel moderator Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection for the CFA.

Our Consumers Union colleague Delara Derakhshani pointed out that many robocalls go beyond mere annoyances, with the callers pitching questionable products and services.

The technological developments that have brought down the cost of making a phone call for consumers has had the unfortunate effect of lowering the bar for entry into telemarketing, said Greisman.

Kevin Rupy of phone industry trade group USTelecom echoed that sentiment, saying that while the connection of the Internet to the phone networks has allowed for great telecom competition through VoIP services, it’s also made it much easier for robocallers to flood your phone with unwanted calls.

And the ability of telemarketers to easily spoof caller ID information to hide their phone number makes it difficult for regulators and law enforcement to track down the source.

Kristi Thompson of the FCC explained that it can take her anywhere from five to ten subpoenas to trace a single robocall back to its origin — and that’s only if the information is still there. With AT&T alone processing 3 billion phone records each day, phone service providers can’t be expected to hold on to all their records indefinitely. Thompson says that if she hits a point in the subpoena daisy chain where the data has been deleted, “I’m sunk.”

Putting aside technological reasons for the continued growth of these annoying calls, Aaron Foss, whose Nomorobo call-blocking service won the FTC’s first robocall-related competition, summed up robocallers’ real motive.

“The reason robocalls are still made is because they work,” explained Foss. “They’re getting money. They’re usually scams, taking advantage of older people.”

Could the telecom industry do more to keep robocalls from reaching consumers?

Rupy pointed out that there are options for consumers, like Verizon’s Do Not Disturb feature that allows you to block all incoming calls except for certain whitelisted numbers.

But as Foss noted, this sort of service may prevent you from receiving legitimate calls that aren’t on that list, and wanted to know why it’s being left to consumers to solve this issue.

“The onus right now is on the consumer to navigate these complex problems,” added Derakhshani. “The options are limited in their capability to block calls and they cost money. Consumers are being forced to pay for tools to block calls they shouldn’t be receiving in the first place.”

Rupy countered that the problem with widespread deployment of a robocall-blocking technology is that too many legitimate calls would get flagged incorrectly.

He pointed to one study showing that 2% of blacklisted numbers are actually false positives. Applied to that 3 billion AT&T calls per day, you’re looking at 60 million erroneously blocked calls each day.

“I’m not knocking on the solutions,” explained Rupy, “I’m saying we need to take a multi-pronged approach. There have to be numerous tools in the basket.”

He said that the telecom industry is working on ways to make caller ID more secure so that consumers can be certain the number that pops up is accurate. However, caller ID spoofing is not illegal and has legitimate uses — for example, victims of abuse trying to hide their identity — that prevent the government from outlawing it outright.

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