Feb 4, 2020 - Technology

Federal agencies expand the fight against robocallers

Illustration of a robot holding a handset while another hand holding scissors cuts the cord.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Federal agencies are stepping up efforts to crack down on illegal robocalls by going after the phone companies that connect or enable them.

Why it matters: Robocalls number in the billions each month, according to data from YouMail. Federal agencies are responding by expanding their focus beyond the scam callers themselves.

Yes, but: This is only the latest in a years-long series of would-be federal crackdowns, but the calls continue. Last month, there were 153 million calls per day, with the average person receiving 14.4 calls in the month, according to the YouMail data.

Driving the news: The Federal Communications Commission became the latest agency to make a move against robocallers Tuesday, as part of a coordinated effort with the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to ensure that carriers are doing their part to halt illegal calls.

  • The FCC's enforcement chief encouraged seven phone companies that allow international calls into U.S. networks to step up efforts to trace back the originators of illegally spoofed foreign robocalls.
  • Letters to the companies say the FCC will be monitoring the so-called gateway providers, which accept foreign calls to U.S. consumers, to see if they cooperate with efforts to identify those making foreign robocalls.
  • "The FCC’s goal is to see greater buy-in from gateway providers on traceback efforts to help us protect consumers against international scam robocalls," agency spokesperson Will Wiquist said. "As for their participation in this process today, it is safe to say we feel like they could do significantly more."

Context: The FCC's letters followed a first-of-its-kind enforcement from the Justice Department last week against telecom carriers it says facilitated millions of fraudulent robocalls.

  • The DOJ, which sought restraining orders to stop the transmission of illegal robocall traffic, said the companies were already warned repeatedly about the issue.
  • The DOJ said most of the scam calls originated from India and led to "massive financial losses."
  • “We are using all available tools and resources to stop foreign call center scammers — and for the first time their U.S.-based enablers — from conning elderly and vulnerable victims in New York and throughout the United States,” U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement.

For its part, the FTC sent letters last week to 19 Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers warning them the agency will take action if they knowingly facilitate illegal robocalls.

On the industry side, T-Mobile, Sprint and Comcast outlined progress Tuesday on implementing anti-robocall technology that will verify calls are really coming from the number displayed on the caller ID.

Go deeper: Robocallers face fight on many fronts

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