Annoying Robocalls Have Surged, But There May Be Good News in Sight | FCC to Fight Back with New Measures

The FCC has new plans to block international robocalls.
Unknown Robocaller Spam Calls Credit: Rclassen / Shutterstock
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If you’ve been noticing a rise in annoying robocalls lately, you are far from alone. During the worst of COVID-19, robocalls actually decreased significantly, as the robocall centers where people gathered to make them (India is a particular hotbed for this) were shut down, and efforts were scaled back.

As the pandemic waned, robocallers were eager to make up for lost time, which means you may be receiving a lot more spammy calls and texts recently. “Wait, isn’t this sort of stuff illegal now?” you may have asked yourself. Yes, it is – but it’s also complicated.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission), along with acts passed by Congress such as the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (Traced) Act of 2019, have made spammy robocalls illegal. But it’s something of an arms race as robocall companies look for loopholes in the most recent laws to keep on doing what they do.

In 2021, one of the actions taken required the use of Stir/Shaken technology for telecom companies, which is basically an authentication technology that carriers can use to say, “Yes, this is a real number from the location it promises.” But there are two problems:

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First, Stir/Shaken prevents spoofing numbers, but it’s ineffectual against real numbers. So robocallers started buying lists of real consumer telephone numbers (these are hacked and sold on the darker parts of the web for just this purpose) and used them to fool Stir/Shaken into thinking that they’re real people.

Second, measures like Stir/Shaken are primarily focused on the national phone system, and struggle to prevent robocalls from international locations…which is where most robocalls now originate.

So where’s the good news?

Well, Stir/Shaken may have not stopped robocallers but it did make it more difficult for them to work, and buying lists of real numbers under the table carries plenty of legal risks of its own. More importantly, the FCC has additional plans in mind to block international robocalls with new types of regulation.

The best example is the current draft for Combatting Illegal International Robocalls Using Gateway Providers. If this or a similar law is enacted, then gateway providers – the companies that channel international voice data into the United States – will have to take additional measures to stop robocalls. That includes blocking robocalls that try to enter the United States, and helping the FCC trace robocalls to where they come from. This makes it much harder for robocall centers in other countries to just switch addresses and names and start up again the next day.

Of course, it’s only a draft and will take plenty of time to certify and enforce, but it’s certainly a light at the end of the spam tunnel.

Congress is also mulling over additional laws to prevent future robocalls, including making it easier for entities like private investigators to trace robocalls to their real source – and this is one of the very few topics congress is actually showing a bipartisan agreement on.

In the meantime, experts advise phone-havers to be on guard against more targeted scams that sound more authentic and appealing. That could include calls made to unwary senior citizens about a Medicare emergency, or calls to those just out of college about important college loan updates.

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