Dec 13, 2019

Robocallers face fight on many fronts

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Federal regulators, lawmakers, and private companies haven't found any one tool that on its own can stem the flood of robocalls, so they are trying several approaches at once.

The big picture: There were a record 5.7 billion robocalls in October, according to YouMail, and the Federal Communications Commission has singled out the issue as its top consumer complaint.

What's happening now: The FCC is pushing both policy proposals and huge fines to deter robocalls.

  • On the policy front, the FCC has made it clear to service providers that they can offer robocall blocking services by default. It has also demanded that they implement a caller ID authentication framework known as SHAKEN/STIR, which involves creating a digital fingerprint to verify caller ID information.
  • On the enforcement front, the agency on Thursday proposed a nearly $10 million fine against a man accused of spoofing a rival telemarketing company's number to make thousands of robocalls with false allegations against a political candidate in California last year.

Yes, but: As Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel points out, the FCC hasn't collected on the majority of the robocall fines it has assessed. (The agency relies on the Justice Department to do the collecting.)

  • "Everyone should save the accolades for when we crush these calls and collect," Rosenworcel said in a statement Thursday. "And on that score, we have work to do."

On Capitol Hill, the House voted last week to approve legislation that would combat robocalls by requiring carriers to implement a caller authentication system and to give consumers free access to call blocking software.

  • The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act would also give the FCC greater enforcement powers and encourage cooperation with the Justice Department in cracking down on robocalls.
  • The bipartisan legislation is now awaiting a vote in the Senate, which is expected to come soon.

Tech companies and phone carriers are also trying to address the situation, including moves by Apple and Google as well as innovative efforts from startups.

  • Apple added a feature in iOS 13 that lets customers automatically block unknown callers, a move that protects against some spammers, but not those who are pretending to be someone you know.
  • Google has a call screening feature for its Android-based Pixel phones that can intercept unwanted calls.
  • There are also third party apps, like Nomorobo and Robokiller, that help block spam callers.

The bottom line: Someday maybe this will all change, but for now, your fingers remain the final line of defense. If you don't recognize the number, don't pick up.

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