Robocalls and unwanted telemarketing calls are the biggest consumer gripe hurled at the FCC, which gets about 200,000 complaints annually about them. Nearly 15 billion robocalls were made in the U.S. during the first half of 2017, according to YouMail, which provides anti-robocall services.
But can the FCC really put a dent in robocalls when scammers and telemarketers constantly deploy new technologies to get to your landline and smartphone?
"Robocalls are the scourge for wireless customers, so the FCC has to lay down the rules, but FCC action alone cannot solve the problem," said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics.
The FCC has started to slap big fines on the most egregious robocall firms. A more effective route to prevent calls before they hit consumers phones could involve telecom carriers and the tech companies working on systems and software to thwart these mass telemarketing firms.
On Thursday the agency took the first steps, beginning processes to get input from companies and individuals on possible standards for improved authentication of calls and identification of fraudulent spoofed ones, and the handling of reassigned phone numbers.
Figuring out which calls are faked could help prevent caller-ID spoofing or neighborhood spoofing. This is a common form of robocalls that use local area codes and the first three numbers of the recipient's own phone number to get people to answer. A database for reassigned phone numbers — that is, when a new phone subscriber gets a phone number that may have already been used — could help separate legitimate calls from frauds.
The agency will now collect public comment on these two notices of inquiry, which represent "additional, potentially potent lines of attack against illegal and unwanted robocalls," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.
In March, the FCC voted to give call providers more power to block illegitimate calls and began a rulemaking process to help fight robocalls. And last month the agency levied its largest fine ever of $120 million on a Florida-based robocall network, which the FCC says made nearly 100 million calls over the last three months of 2016.
The agency issued another fine Thursday of $2.88 million against New Mexico-based Dialing Services, which developed software used by clients to make more than 4.7 million robocalls to cell phones in three months. After being cited by the FCC, Dialing Services subsequently was responsible for more unauthorized robocalls, the agency said.
All of this is unlikely to completely solve the robocall problem, "but it will move things in the right direction," said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, which has anti-robocall voicemail apps for consumer smartphones and systems for businesses.
If these technologies are implemented, carriers would be able to block calls coming from unassigned numbers and from numbers where calls do not typically originate from, such as corporate 800 numbers, he says. And a database for authenticating calls would also prevent spoofing, Quilici says. "These are all good things to try to stop bad guys from being able to make calls," he said. "It won't solve the problem, but at least it puts a dent in it."
The FCC action is important whether it results in new rules or serves as guidance for the industry to voluntarily combat the practice, says Chris Drake, chief technical officer at iconectiv, which is among companies developing industry standards that verify caller IDs to combat robocalls and illegitimate calls.
"There will need to be many tools because what will happen is these fraudsters, when they find out what is being stopped, will find another way to do it," Drake said. He expects iconectiv to file comments with FCC, as it did earlier this year.
That's true, Entner says, as spammers have already embarked on "the next frontier on robocalling," which delivers calls directly to your cell phone's voicemail. "The phone doesn’t even ring, but a voice mail shows up," he said.
"Some people are going to listen," Entner said, "and the marginal cost of doing this is so low that anybody (the robocallers) get is a win."