Robocalls Still a Big Problem

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says if you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, it’s a robocall.  Robocalls are obnoxious and often are a prelude to fraud, yet they arrive every day and pester most of us.

Robocalling is not like speeches in a public park where we have the right to hold forth on almost any topic as an expression of our first amendment rights.  Instead, robocalls invade our personal space and they misuse personal communications services that we pay for.   There has been a recent uptick in frequency of robocalls and government agencies are taking it more seriously.

Two agencies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FTC are both trying to curb robocall operators.   Recently, the FCC began stridently urging big telecoms to fix the problem.  For years, the FCC has been aware of robocall problems (from the hundreds of thousands of complaints it receives) but the FCC has prosecuted just 13 cases since 2013, or about 4 cases per year.  Four cases a year is a token effort when contrasted with the 4 robocalls per day that my household sometimes gets.  The FCC may do a few things well, but not robocall control.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a longer track record of actively prosecuting robocall crimes usually based on their violation of the “do not call” registry that it operates.   It pursued more than a hundred lawsuits against over 600 companies and individuals for robocall-related violations of law and regulations.

Robocall policing by the FTC and FCC is duplicative. The cause of this waste is that the FCC has begun campaigning for top spot on the federal totem pole for privacy policy and enforcement activities.  Its main rival is, of course, the FTC.

The robocall solicitations are often preposterous.  Recent pitches to my household include an offer to fix my credit score (it’s not broken), renew the warranty on a car that I sold 4 years ago, and have me donate to (unsupportable) political candidates.  I’m not a suitable candidate for the robocall solicitations, but that does not stop them.

I see no compelling reason to give political campaign solicitors a free pass to annoy anyone they choose, especially when there is no prior affiliation between the political telemarketer and victim.  I cannot say how often robocalls morph into a pitch by a live salesman because I dump the calls promptly.

Telemarketers often abandon their outreach before I answer the call.  Telemarketers must be using buckshot out-dialers with the consequence that victims closer to their cellphones answer before me, leaving dead air on my phone.  The calls I receive look like dropped calls or the result of butt dialing.   In the few instances I have tried to call telemarketers back to remind them I’m on a do not call list, the purported calling number has been “spoofed” – it leads nowhere.

Robocalls are an unsolicited and undeserved interruption in our pursuit of work and family time.    Aside from wasted time and disruption to attention, they are generally pointless and poorly targeted.   The FTC has the most experience in dealing with unwanted calls and unless the FCC has something more constructive to do than imperiously order telcos to fix the problem, it should leave the FTC to do its job.  But, that is not going to happen.

There has, fortunately, been one important and positive turn of events. To help the FCC, a group of tech firms, chaired by AT&T, are going to work together to rid the public of the robocalling nuance.  Hopefully, industry can do what regulators could not.

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