Early this month, the Federal Communications Commission issued the largest robocall-related fine in its history.
The agency fined John Spiller and Jakob Mears $225 million for a scheme in which the two bombarded people with 1 billion robocalls using fake phone numbers.
“The FCC said the robocalls offered plans from major insurers like Aetna and UnitedHealth with an automated message,” The Associated Press reported. “If consumers pressed a button for more information, however, they were transferred to a call center that sold plans not connected to those companies.”
Yet in spite of record fines, the Do Not Call Registry established in 2003 and a new anti-robocall law enacted in 2019, the robocalls persist. In fact, they’re getting worse. Laws and fines don’t deter them. Technology, so far, can block only so many of them.
In 2018, “230 million numbers” were on the Do Not Call Registry, according to The Washington Post. “The point, obviously, is to not be called. And yet the FTC receives 19,000 complaints every day from list members who have, in fact, been called.”
So, Congress acted again with 2019’s Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, giving authorities more enforcement powers against robocall scams. When phone companies block robocalls, they must do so without charging consumers.
The act’s first year is not encouraging.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 2.1 million fraud reports from consumers in 2020, with impostor scams remaining the most common type of fraud reported to the agency. Most of those scams are through robocalls, according to Tricia Pruitt, a regional vice president with the Better Business Bureau of North Alabama.
“As the FTC statistics show, the phone has become the top way the scam artists reach their potential victims,” Pruitt said. “There are many days that is the top call I receive. People that call me are fed up with the number of calls they receive every day.”
Robocalls are a technological problem. Indeed, the telephone scam is as old as the telephone itself.
The above-cited Washington Post report even quotes a Chicago police inspector in 1888 describing a phone scam: “The educated criminal skims the cream from every new invention, if he can make use of it.”
The universal advice for dealing with telephone scammers and robocallers is not to answer the phone and, if you do, to hang up on them. Whatever you do, do not give out personal information to unsolicited callers and don’t press the button to remove yourself from the call list if prompted. Pressing a button just lets scammers know they have a live person and encourages even more robocalls.
Perhaps the most pernicious scammers are those calling pretending to be law enforcement, often disguising their real phone numbers as local law enforcement phone numbers, and threatening people with jail time unless they pay some fine about which they knew nothing.
As with any technological problem, robocall scammers will require a technological solution. There are too many scammers for law enforcement and federal regulators to catch enough and fine enough to make an effective deterrent. Too many of them are based overseas and beyond the effective reach of U.S. authorities.
Just as internet service providers finally got a handle on email spam, relatively little of which gets to users’ inboxes anymore, phone companies must get a handle on phone spam.