Automated calls suck. It costs us money and time, and it’s so prevalent that the vast majority of Americans don’t even answer their phones if they don’t know who’s calling. Everyone knows they are a problem, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it. That may change.
The Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday that it was ordering phone companies to block call traffic that the agency believes is part of a massive robocall operation to secure the vehicle responsible for 8 billion illegal automated calls since 2018.
Or, as FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworsel put it: “Billions of auto warranty bot calls from a single call campaign. Billions!”
The FCC has been trying for years to stop or at least mitigate illegal robocalls, only to see their number increase along with consumer irritation. But these efforts seem to be paying off. The agency is not only trying to end robocall campaigns, but it is also looking for and chasing companies that facilitate them.
“We will not tolerate robocall scammers or those who help make their scams possible. Consumers are impatient and I’m right there with them.
The order targets eight companies whose systems were the source of those calls, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In other words, scammers were buying access to our phones through these service providers. So not only is the FCC’s robocall crackdown, but the phone companies used to make all those calls are being penalized — and other providers are being notified not to accept traffic from robocallers, too. This should mean fewer automated calls overall.
This is all part of a larger campaign. In order to deceive victims and evade authorities, illegal robocall networks usually buy huge batches of legitimate phone numbers from voice service providers who are happy to look the other way as long as they get paid and there are no consequences.
But earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission and the Ohio attorney general said they have identified and are taking action against several individuals who claimed to be behind an automated dial operation that was responsible for some of the infamous auto warranty calls. The FCC also sent cease and desist letters to eight voice service providers that it believed the automated calls were being made. The agency has been able to identify these suppliers through some industry-wide measures that have been in place over the past several years.
“I would say this is an important development because it shows that the FCC expects the industry to work together to stop unwanted bot calls,” said Jim Terrell, senior director of product marketing at TNS, which provides bot identification and mitigation services. “The FCC takes this threat seriously and wants to ensure that these actors are banned,”
Terrell said the FCC had issued cease-and-desist letters like this before, but the companies to which it was sent all responded to the letters and no further action was needed. The eight service providers – Call Pipe, Fugle Telecom, Geist Telecom, Global Lynks, Mobi Telecom, SipKonnect, South Dakota Telecom and Virtual Telecom – had the opportunity to respond to messages. But in this case, none of the providers responded, allowing the FCC to order all phone companies to block calls from them. Needless to say, a phone company whose calls are not accepted by any other providers is not a phone company anymore.
“This is the first order of its kind,” FCC spokesperson Will Wiquist told Recode. “We believe this is an impactful effort made possible by improved traceability due to widespread STIR/SHAKEN application, fruitful partnerships with other investigators such as the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, and a strong push from President Rosenworsel to take resolute steps using all of our tools to truly protect consumers.”
Service providers who do not take reasonable measures to block calls from these eight companies risk getting into trouble themselves.
“The implicit threat is that if the FCC finds that a provider is allowing this traffic to continue, the commission will take action against it,” Terrell said.
This may be the kind of threat the industry needs to make a real effort to stem the epidemic of calls to consumers. Last year, the FCC began tasking service providers with implementing STIR/SHAKEN, a framework to make it possible to trace calls to their providers. It was not an immediate solution, as smaller providers were given extra time to implement it. That extra time has passed by this point, however, and the ability to trace calls back is what the FCC says has helped investigators trace automated calls back to those eight providers.
The FCC has also been issuing and proposing standard fines against other automated calling operations. The number of bot calls appears to be declining, which is good news. However, the number of bot texts has increased. Much. This suggests that scammers may simply switch to a new way to annoy and deceive us.
On the other hand, the risk of a robotic call may be too great to stop any time soon. Two of the people accused of being behind this latest operation, Roy Cox Jr. and Aaron Michael Jones, have had trouble with bot calling before and, as a result, have been permanently banned from telemarketing by the Federal Trade Commission (both the FCC and can prosecute FTC Automated Calls). If the agency’s recent claims are true, these bans have done little to discourage them, and it might not be difficult for them to start their operations back up again if they can find more providers.
“The problem is that with so many smaller VoIP providers out there, the bad actor is just moving their traffic from one provider to another,” Terrell said. “It’s like a whack-a-mole game.”