Controlling Robocalls

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Today the FTC is announcing new initiatives to address robocalls: those annoying automated sales calls from businesses you have never heard of.

We get over 200,000 consumer complaints about robocalls every month.   A great many of these calls violate rules governing telemarketing, which the FTC enforces.  These rules generally prohibit prerecorded sales calls to consumers, unless the telemarketer has obtained permission in writing from the consumer.  (There are some exceptions, such as purely informational calls letting you know that your flight is delayed, your shipment will be delivered tomorrow, etc.)

I encourage you to check out the FTC's robocall page, at ftc.gov/robocalls, and watch for information about the robocall summit we'll be convening on October 18 in Washington, DC.

In this post, I want to talk about some technical issues connected to robocalls.

The growth in robocalls has been enabled by technological changes that have drastically decreased the cost of making phone calls.  The same technologies that let us talk to people around the world for almost no cost have also, unfortunately, opened the door to exploitation by bad actors.   In the old days, when phone calls were expensive, most businesses would think twice before shelling out the money to make a call to you--many would only call you if they had some reason to believe you wanted to do business with them.  But now, with their cost per call down around one cent or less, they can afford to call and call and call--assuming they're willing to break the law and risk FTC enforcement.

Robocall companies use technical tricks to lower their costs even more.  For example, some experts believe that the robo-voices that you hear on their calls are chosen, in part, because they are especially compressible--they can be transmitted at low data rates and still sound good.   This allows the robocallers to cram more simultaneous calls through the same Internet connection.

Another interesting tech question is how to catch the robocallers and their confederates.   They have long since figured out how to evade or misuse Caller ID, a system that was never really designed to provide any kind of strong proof of the caller's identity.   Caller ID works well when the participants in routing a call are cooperating nicely, but it relies on callers or their technological proxies to send accurate identifying information--which is no longer universal now that the phone system is no longer run by a few well-established companies but is open to connections from almost anybody.   Again, the thriving, diverse ecosystem of companies providing phone services is a good thing on the whole, having unleashed innovation and lowered prices, but it does have a dark side.  The good news is that are things we can do to track down robocallers by using a combination of technical and legal methods.

But more needs to be done.   That's why we will be calling on the technology community to work on innovative approaches to attack the robocall problem.   Can you help consumers protect themselves?   Can you help law enforcement identify robocallers more quickly?  Can you think of some other way to frustrate robocallers?   Stay tuned for details about our technology challenge.

Original Comments for “Controlling Robocalls”

 

Privacy Camp (@PrivacyCamp)   
July 10, 2012 at 3:01 pm      

 

Great post and glad to see that the FTC is leading the challenge against one of the largest and most damaging technologies to US Consumers. Do Not Call (when followed by normal actors) has been one of the most important and far reaching regulations in consumer protection history.

While political calls remain exempt (but not to cell phones I believe) I hope to see this robocall challenge provide relief for the 100’s of millions of voters that get no relief from political, PAC, union, charity, etc. calls.

My members report receiving 10-15 political robocalls a day during election season.

If the FTC can figure out a technology to shut those day, millions of Americans will know the agency’s name and bless you for your work.

Shaun Dakin

Founder > Privacy Camp

Founder > The National Political Do Not Contact Registry

 

stanley miller
July 11, 2012 at 1:07 am      

We have been getting a bunch of so called political robocalls, they ask a single question and then offer you a reward of a free cruise that will cost you a fortune if you actually fall for the scam. The whole system needs a reboot to deal with the folks working around the system in ways like this.

 

PJ
July 11, 2012 at 8:59 am      

 

I’e gone into full defensive whitelisting – I’ve got a little android app that ignores (sends to voicemail) calls from any number that’s not in my contact list.

 

nonegiven
July 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm      

What Stanley Miller said.

I keep getting calls from IND SUR GROUP or PACIFICTEL from different numbers that, when I Google them, sound like this same scam. From everything I’ve learned the numbers are probably spoofed and they seem to change them every day. The info I found says they want a credit card number to pay for “port fees.” I don’t want to press a phone button to prove it’s more than a survey but I want them to stop using this exemption. Anyway, if a politician calls me he just lost my vote, so why have the exemption? I also don’t give money away and I don’t do phone surveys so where is the list where I can opt out of all that crap? They are just using those to get around the law and I have stopped answering the phone for callers I don’t know. I should be able to answer my own phone and have it be someone I want to talk to.

 

Neil Katin
July 31, 2012 at 2:43 pm      

I urge the FTC to not just consider technical solutions; even the best technical answer will have only a temporary effect and then be worked around. Given the long timeframes of the FTC rulemaking process it is an arms race you are sure to lose.

I believe any workable solution has to combine both technology and changes to the economic landscape; we have to find a way to raise the cost of robocalls without having too much impact on regular calls.

 

Ed Felten
August 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm   

Our advice for dealing with robocalls is that you should not press a key nor try to talk to a person–that just tells them that your number is answered by a person. We would also urge you to send a complaint to the FTC, at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ . Complaints serve several useful purposes, one of which is to help us focus our enforcement resources where they can do the most good.

The author’s views are his or her own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission or any Commissioner.

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