Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023
Robocalls are an increasing threat to Americans across the country. In 2020, American consumers received nearly 4 billion robocalls per month. This number quickly increased in March 2021 when Americans received 4.9 billion robocalls. Although not all robocalls are illegal, illegal robocalls hurt Americans by spamming them to market a product. Americans have a choice to give their written consent, but the issue stems from robocalls marketing products without written consent. About 60 million Americans say they have been a victim to phone scams in the last year and have lost nearly $30 billion as a result. Unfortunately, despite the FCC and FTC increasingly targeting spammers and illegal robocalls, it is difficult to say when this problem will end.
The issue with robocalls
A robocall is a phone call that transmits a recorded message instead of a live person. Although robocalls are annoying, not all of them are illegal. For example, robocalls that relay purely informational messages, call to collect a debt, political calls, calls from health care providers or pharmacies, and charities calling for donations for themselves are all legal under FTC rules. However, robocalls that attempt to sell something a consumer didn’t consent to are illegal. The issue with illegal robocalls comes from their constant calling and spamming of consumers, the amount of which has ballooned in recent years. It seems that most of us are now getting robocalls at least once a day. This increase is because it is easier and cheaper for scammers to make robocalls by using the internet from anywhere in the world.
Additionally, scammers can use robocalls to appear more credible and defraud consumers of their money. One popular way scammers do this is by faking a name and number on Caller ID to look like a government agency or a local call. This, of course, increases the chances of the person on the other end picking up their phone. This is also known as “spoofing” and is used by spammers to defraud consumers of their personal information or finances.
Laws against robocalls
The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) regulates radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications. The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) promotes consumer protection. In the last decade, both the FCC and FTC have taken a strong stance against illegal robocalls and spoofing operations.
In September of 2009, an FTC regulation went into effect that banned robocalls from telemarketers to consumers unless the consumer gave their written consent to receive robocalls. The new regulation attached a hefty fine of up to $16,000 per call to any telemarketer who contacted a consumer without written consent. More than ten years later, the issue continues to prevail, and the FCC gave major wireless carriers a deadline to implement technology to deflect robocalls and spam calls. As of June 30, 2020, every major provider in the United States was required to implement Stir/Shaken technology requiring providers to verify where incoming and outgoing calls were coming from. Small providers were also given until June 30, 2023, to implement this technology. Stir/Shaken technology is also aimed to prevent international robocalls by requiring providers to ‘perform robocall mitigation’ on all foreign calls to U.S. numbers. Additionally, all major wireless carriers offer some call blocking feature to reduce annoyance in their customers and prevent additional fraud.
The FTC also implemented a website called DoNotCall.Gov, where consumers can report the number that robocalls or attempts to scam them and register their phone number on the ‘Do Not Call’ list for robocalls. The FTC investigates the numbers and releases them to the public daily to alert the public and companies of fraudulent or problematic phone numbers. Additionally, the FTC brings enforcement actions against companies who violate the Robocall laws.
In recent years, the FCC has taken action totaling over $450 million against illegal spoofing companies. The FCC has targeted and fined companies all over the country for their non-compliance. For example, the FCC fined a Texas telemarketing company $225 million for spoofing around $1 billion robocalls.
Why compliance is difficult
Despite strict laws and regulations put in place for both wireless carriers and telemarketing companies, robocalls, specifically those whose intent is to scam, continue to annoy the general US population and are unlikely to stop anytime soon. The National Do Not Call Registry, designed to stop calls from companies, only works for companies that adhere to regulations and laws. Some scammers do not care if a consumer is or is not on the registry — they will call anyway.
With every new regulation passed, many scammers change their tactics to remain “compliant” with the current law. For example, many scamming organizations have started buying real phone numbers to trick spam-blocking technology into letting their calls through. Because buying phone numbers is perfectly legal, it is difficult to track down spammers and enforce laws on them when they are finding loopholes. FCC Commissioner, Brendan Carr, described the fight against robocalls and spammers as a game of whack-a-mole where as soon as the regulation is passed, scammers find a way around it.
Although illegal robocalls and spammers have made ending robocalls difficult, lawmakers and government agencies continue to push for regulations and enforcement in order to reduce robocalls for Americans across the country. The FCC has made combating robocalls a top priority and will continue to eradicate spammers and illegal robocalls.