Why we can't get rid of robocalls… (for now)

Posted at 12:29 PM, Jul 31, 2017

Two or three times a day, a string of unfamiliar digits illuminates Barry Graham’s Caller ID. Each time he has to decide whether to ignore the call and risk missing a legitimate business contact, or answer it and yet again hear the computerized voice of a robocall.

"It's gotten to the stage where I am prepared to miss calls I might want,” said Graham, a software specialist in Silver Spring, Md. “You just have to deal with it.”

Barry Graham (Scripps News Photo by Matt Anzur)

While there are legal robocalls from police departments, schools, political campaigns and other sources, a Scripps News analysis of Federal Communications Commission records found there have been more than 400,000 consumer complaints about unwanted and potentially illegal calls filed with the agency since October 2014. The data do not make clear how many of the complaints are about robocalls, but the FCC says robocalls account for the No. 1 consumer complaint.  The data show the unwanted calls are ringing up mobile phone and landlines.

According to the FCC, U.S. consumers received 2.4 billion robocalls each month last year. While the agency does not have an estimate for how many of the calls are malicious or fraudulent, the complaint data show some alarming trends, including disguising where the call is coming from.

There are calls from tens of thousands of different phone numbers from a wide swath of area codes, including some that do not exist such as “000.” Some use software to hide or mask the number they are calling from. A fake number will appear on Caller ID that might include local area codes and prefixes to make calls look authentic and familiar. Masking a number on Caller ID is an illegal tactic known as spoofing. It’s a tool fraudsters use to convince innocent people to accept their calls. Spoofing also allows callers to dial numbers on the Do Not Call Registry without being easily traced.

“Spoofing is especially effective at convincing innocent people to give up their money and personal information,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.  “Inexpensive computer programs make it simple for con artists to spoof phone numbers and to make robocalls in bulk, fueling the rise in unwanted calls.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (Scripps News Photo by Matt Anzur)

Blasting out unwanted calls is a crime that pays, with phone scammers raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Consumers Union. Robocalls offer an efficient way to dial up Americans automatically in bulk in an attempt to steal their money. It’s worth the criminal’s time if only a fraction of those who answer the call fall for the fake offers, such as vacation packages or charity donations.

And the criminals operate with a small chance of ever being caught.

The FCC recently proposed a $120 million fine against Adrian Abramovich, accusing the Florida man of making nearly 100 million robocalls in a three-month period last year. It was the largest fine in FCC history. The complaint against Abramovich states he spoofed calls, manipulating Caller IDs to get consumers to pick up the phone to hear pitches about vacation packages.

FCC documents in the case against Abramovich state his automatic dialing jammed emergency medical pagers managed by Spok Inc. The calls temporarily disabled the paging networks doctors use to receive urgent messages, according to the FCC.

Tim Saine, spokesman for Spok Inc., said robocallers’ random dialing of pager numbers that are not equipped to handle voice calls can bring down their systems for hours, potentially affecting 10,000 people at a time.

“Our customers actually get busy signals,” Saine said.

Calls to Abramovich or any representative for the two companies named in the complaint, Marketing Strategy Leaders Inc. and Marketing Leaders Inc., were not returned.

The case was the first FCC enforcement action against what it considered a major spoofing operation. About 59 percent of phone spam is untraceable, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

A Scripps News examination of unwanted call complaints to the FCC found that one of the numbers linked to the most complaints in the past year had the same area code and prefix as Indiana University Health, a hospital system headquartered in Indianapolis. The number was spoofed by a robocaller.

“After identifying a phone number that was being misused, we took action to prevent further misuse of the number and placed a message on the number to warn callers,” said Indiana University Health spokesman Jeffrey Swiatek in an emailed statement.

Pai said the FCC might finally get an advantage on robocallers with game-changing technology designed to make spoofing close to impossible.

In March, the agency began collecting comments on a proposed rule that would allow for a “Do Not Originate” list. Carriers could stop calls from numbers that are not valid, including those from fake area codes or numbers that have not yet been assigned.

A 2016 test of the technology by the FCC’s industry-led Robocall Strike Force had a 90 percent success rate of reducing spoofed IRS calls. The proposed rule would change U.S. law to explicitly allow phone companies to keep calls from bogus numbers from ever reaching a customer’s phone. It would require consumer consent before using the call-blocking technology.

The FCC also is attempting to set standards for technology that can verify a caller’s true identity.  

It would block calls coming from numbers that do not appear accurately on Caller ID.

But there are calls for caution and clarity.  In a letter to the FCC, USTelecom, a broadband industry association, said it is “crucial” any “Do Not Originate” technology be programmed to weed out the right calls.

“Legitimate calls can be blocked,” USTelecom warned.  “Due to these varying degrees of risk, and the nature of any network blocking, deployment of such services by carriers must be carefully considered and vetted prior to full implementation by industry,” the association said in its letter.

The industry also cautions the FCC against taking measures that might discourage legal robocalls.

The payment industry’s Electronic Transactions Association, representing 500 companies, says banks use robocalls to warn customers about potentially fraudulent activity in their accounts.

It is asking the FCC to clarify anti-robocall laws so businesses will feel confident they’re not violating the law when phoning customers.

“It is difficult to determine what is actually an illegal robocall,” the association wrote in an FCC filing.

Pai said the FCC is aiming for call authentication systems that “reliably” filter out unwanted calls while protecting legal robocalls. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the board should “ensure that it doesn’t prevent or squash legitimate robocalls in its ferocious quest to curtail unlawful ones.”

The commission also is exploring whether phone companies should have to report when a number has been reassigned to a new customer. Legitimate robocallers, like debt collectors, might eventually be able to use a public database of changed phone numbers to avoid mistakenly calling numbers that have been given to new users.

“We want to cut down on the scourge as quickly as we possibly can,” Pai said. “This FCC is the cop on the beat and we are walking as quickly as we can around the neighborhood. The goal is to get rid of illegal and unwanted robocalls.”

Patrick Terpstra is a Scripps News Washington Bureau national investigative reporter. You can email him at Patrick.Terpstra@scripps.com. Data journalist Mark Fahey built the graphics.