The Robocall Deluge Is a Case of Government Failure

AP Photo/John Raoux, File

A call log displayed via an AT&T app shows a number of calls from fraudulent numbers. 

If your experience has been like mine, your phone has become a lot less useful to you in recent years thanks to the surge of robocalls. The robocall epidemic has gone way beyond an annoyance; it has contaminated an entire medium of communication, cell phones as well as landlines. 

It’s not just that robocalls interrupt your dinner. Neighbor spoofing—the false transmission to caller ID of a number similar to your own—often makes it impossible to identify what calls are genuine. If I don’t know for sure who is calling, I generally don’t pick up. And since I assume that many other people now do the same in self-defense, I don’t call people who won’t recognize my number or aren’t expecting me to call. The phone has consequently lost much of the value it once had for everyday purposes such as contacting someone for the first time or organizing a community initiative or a political campaign.

The effect on people’s willingness to answer the phone could also have life-and-death implications. If someone you don’t know is trying to reach you by phone in a genuine emergency, the odds you’ll answer that call have probably plummeted.

The growth of robocalls is not the result of an act of nature. It is a failure of government regulation in an age when commercial interests have had far too much influence on regulatory policy and the enforcement of law. And while robocalls may seem a small matter, they are representative of a wider problem, and the political candidates who raise the issue and commit to aggressive action on behalf of consumers will get a hugely positive response.

The robocall deluge is just one manifestation of a phenomenon I call “media degradation.” It goes along with spam email, spam text messages, fake news, deepfake videos, and much else. In the early days of the digital revolution, we naively thought that new technology would just make it cheaper for us to connect with one another and provide new tools of expression. The only thing government needed to do was to stay out of the way. That was the message of the libertarianism that long dominated discussion about the internet.

But along with all its genuine benefits, digital technology has also made it cheap and easy for spammers to overwhelm us and created new tools of fraud and deception. Rather than making government unnecessary, the digital revolution calls for a new era of regulation to counter those developments. 

When the postal system was the main artery of communication, the federal government maintained a large force of special agents to protect consumers against fraud. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service was, in fact, the biggest investigative arm of the federal government before the establishment of the FBI and even brought down the first Mafia organization in the country. The government took seriously its responsibility to police mail fraud and other crimes involving the mails.   

But the government has not devoted the same kinds of resources to protecting consumers against the forms of fraud and harassment, including robocalls, that have spread in the new technological environment. Last year, The Washington Post reported that the office in the Federal Trade Commission that deals with unwanted telephone calls has 43 employees, none of whom work full-time on the problem. The FTC did ban most commercial robocalls in 2009 but as of last year had brought only 33 cases against robocallers and collected a pittance in relief and penalties. As the Post reported, robocallers haven’t had any concern about getting caught:

The financial rewards of bothering people on the telephone are clearly greater than the risks. "We continue to bring cases and shut down as many folks as we can," says Janice Kopec, the FTC's point person on robo-calls. "What we recognized, though, was we shut down an operation and another one springs up behind it almost instantaneously." Hence our modern scourge.

But it’s not beyond the capacity of the federal government to require changes in telecom systems that would help identify the robocallers. The government could also follow the money they take from defrauded consumers and impose serious penalties, including prison time. The next time I hear about “Rachel from Cardmember Services” I want to hear that her boss is in jail.

The recent efforts to control unwanted phone calls offer lessons about ineffectual regulation. In 2003, after years of excessive deference to the telemarketing industry, Congress passed legislation to create the Do Not Call Registry, which now has more than 200 million numbers on it. But other than providing a way to lodge a complaint, the registry has given consumers no recourse if they continue receiving calls. And when robocalls emerged in the late 2000s, the registry proved wholly ineffective because the robocallers were able to spoof phone numbers and originate their calls from abroad. 

Like the FTC, the Federal Communications Commission also has jurisdiction in this area. But none of the measures adopted by either agency has been strong enough to stem the robocall tide. According to a report from Transaction Network Services—a company that manages data networks for Verizon, Sprint, and other telecom providers—robocalls amounted to one-third of all calls in the United States during the first six months of 2018, up 15 percent over the same period the year before. 

In its latest effort to limit robocalls, the FCC is pushing telephone carriers to adopt “caller ID authentication,” a technology that would indicate whether a phone number is being spoofed, though it would not block the call. The technology is supposed to roll out this year, but it probably won’t have much effect until every phone carrier adopts it because robocallers will shift to carriers that haven’t installed it. And it’s not clear when the rollout will be complete.

Consumers Union and the Consumers Federation of America have proposed legislation—the Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones Act (Robocop Act)—that would go further. It would direct the FCC to require telecom providers to install caller ID authentication at no charge and to offer consumers optional free robocall blocking. It would also create an exemption for callers—such as people at a domestic violence shelter—to enable them to conceal the phone numbers they are using. And it would enable consumers and state consumer protection agencies to sue telecom carriers if they failed to meet those requirements

The real issues here aren’t new. Protecting the public against fraud and harassment is one of the basic, traditional functions of government,  and if the people in power can’t do that elementary job, the voters need to find officials who will.

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