Technology Briefing

How the FCC hopes to curb those annoying spam calls

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The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a new set of rules to stymie calls from 'spoofed' phone numbers, which often help scammers steal personal information. 

This Aug. 26, 2015 photo shows an Apple iPhone with a cracked screen after a drop test from the DropBot, a robot used to measure the sustainability of a phone to dropping, at the offices of SquareTrade in San Francisco.
Ben Margot/AP/File
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Calls from “spoofed” numbers have disturbed countless Americans at dinner time and deceived millions into turning over money or their personal information to scammers on the other end of the phone. 

Q: What is a spoofed number? 

Scammers spoof another phone number when they use that number to hide their identity or the origin of their call. A spoofed number could be one a phone company has not yet assigned, a number from an invalid or nonexistent area code, or a number from a line that does not dial out. 

Sometimes the call is made by an actual person, but usually it is an automated call. 

Robocall scams have long been a pain in regulators’ sides. But the proliferation of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones, which use a broadband internet connection to dial out instead of a traditional analog phone line, has enabled the number of robocall scams to explode. Complaints about robocalls violating the National Do Not Call Registry, an opt-in list that prohibits telemarketers from calling consumers, doubled from 2010 to 2015, according to Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. Today, unwanted calls including robocalls and telemarketing scams are the No. 1 consumer complaint the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) receives, with about 200,000 filed annually.

These scams have also had economic consequences for Americans. Of the 13 percent of US adults who have been victims of a telephone scam, nearly half of them have lost between $100 and $10,000, according to a study released in December by CPR Call Blocker, a company that sells devices that block unwanted calls. 

Q: Why have existing regulations been useless? 

The simple answer is scammers ignore them, often because they illegally operate overseas or are otherwise out of law enforcement’s reach.

Spoofing is generally illegal in the United States, although Congress’s Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 grants exceptions for political campaigns, charities, debt collectors, pharmacies, schools, and other providers of information. 

Additional federal measures targeting telemarketing abuse include the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 as well as the National Do Not Call Registry, which the Federal Trade Commission opened in 2003. The problem with these regulations, explains Consumers Union policy analyst Maureen Mahoney, is that scammers disregard them. 

Regulators have tried to put up other roadblocks, such as banning robocalls to cellphones without prior written consent. But spoofers have found their way around these, too, says Margot Freeman Saunders, senior counsel to the National Consumer Law Center. 

“Spoofers are often judgment-proof,” she says. “The current laws just apply prohibitions to the spoofer, but you never know who they are, and you can’t find them even when they are in the United States.”

Q: What does the FCC plan to do now? 

The commission is both proposing new rules and asking for help. In a shift away from its long-standing policy of never allowing phone companies to block calls, the FCC is proposing allowing providers to do so if it appears the call originated from a number that is unassigned or invalid or is one a subscriber previously requested be blocked because of concerns that his or her number was being spoofed.

But the FCC is also asking phone companies and the public to come up with ideas to ensure that legal telemarketers aren’t also blocked. The commission is seeking public comments through the spring, and the final rules aren’t likely to come into force before late this year. 

Q: Will this plan work?

Yes and no. Consumer advocates say it is no panacea, but it’s a good start. They point to the success of a test that phone companies and the FCC recently conducted. Providers reduced scam calls purportedly from the Internal Revenue Service by about 90 percent in the third quarter of 2016 by blocking numbers on a list associated with government, bank, and other lines that do not dial out, according to the FCC.

But Ms. Mahoney at Consumers Union urges phone companies to do more and for more technology to be made available to consumers to block or stop calls. Although a coalition of 33 companies already formed the Robocall Strike Force to develop new scam-fighting tools, Mahoney says companies should also offer consumers free tools to, for example, identify numbers that have been spoofed by using caller ID. 

Q: What scams should people watch out for in the meantime? 

“Rachel,” from Cardholder Services, is just one caller consumers should be wary of. She has already duped countless Americans by promising to lower their credit-card bill. Another popular scam asks a question such as “Can you hear me?” to trick people into saying “yes.” Don’t. A one-word answer can be edited later to make it sound as if the person authorized a major purchase. A third scam is a phony fundraising call, often from politicians. People whose voices have been used include Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.