How the FCC hopes to curb those annoying spam calls

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. 

Ben Margot/AP/File
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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How the FCC hopes to curb those annoying spam calls
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today