U.S., Canada Team Up To Fight Robocalls Together

If you didn’t have much to do during the mid-’90s, you may remember a CBS show called Due South about the unlikely crimefighting duo (is there ever a show about a likely crimefighting duo?) of Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Chicago Detective Raymond Vecchio (until he had to go deep undercover and was replaced by not-quite-lookalike Det. Stanley Kowalski). Today’s announcement from regulators in the U.S. and Canada is exactly like that show, except it’s about robocalls, and is really nothing at all like that show.

This afternoon, the FCC and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) released a memo of understanding [PDF], detailing how the two agencies can and will work together to combat nuisance, often illegal, automated calls.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act allows — in certain circumstances — the FCC to share some information with law enforcement authorities outside the U.S., while Canada’s Anti-Spam Law lets this type of scuttlebutt to be shared with the U.S. when appropriate.

So if a robocaller is breaking a U.S. law that is similar to a Canadian law (or vice-versa) and Canada’s help is needed to track down that scammer, the two countries can more easily cooperate.

The same goes with scammers using spoofing technology to hide their identity. The use of caller-ID spoofing is not itself illegal in the U.S., unless that tech is being deployed to defraud, or harass others. Many robocall scammers use spoofing to either cloak their location or to give the impression that they are calling from a certain company, government office (the IRS is a big one), or law enforcement agency. Such calls are also often routed internationally before hitting their ultimate target, so international cooperation should only help.

Of course, if consumers had more reliable and free ways to block these nuisance calls, there would likely be fewer robocallers to chase down through the vast array of phone, broadband, and wireless networks.

“Hopefully these international partnerships will help the FCC shut down crooks engaged in illegal robocall scams,” notes our colleague Maureen Mahoney from Consumers Union. “But ultimately, the phone companies are in the best position to end the scourge of robocalls by offering their customers effective call-blocking protection.”

CU’s End Robocalls campaign has allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans tell their phone providers that they need better tools to stop these calls from invading their lives.

In response to the public outcry over these calls, the FCC recently tasked the phone and broadband industries with creating a Robocall Strike Force. In its first 60 days, this team managed to make significant strides, expediting the development of new caller ID standards and testing out a “Do Not Originate” list that automatically blocks calls that are spoofed to look like certain government phone numbers that the phone company has identified.

That team still has a while to go before it’s actually implementing and offering new tools to its customers for free. There is also the question of whether or not the phone companies should be compensated for this work. The Strike Force plan suggested multiple ways the industry players could recoup the money spent on developing and providing call-blocking tools, but FCC Chair Tom Wheeler shot that idea down, saying the companies should accept this as a cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the CRTC recently gave its telecom providers a 90-day deadline to come up with solutions for blocking unwanted calls.