Decades ago, the phone hanging on the kitchen wall would ring, and you expected it to be a relative or friend on the other end. Maybe it’d be a salesperson interrupting dinner. But annoying phone calls weren’t something you had to avoid every day.
Now when your phone buzzes, you don’t immediately answer. You look to see if you recognize the number. Our screening habits have evolved due to notorious, obnoxious robocalls. How often have you heard “We’re calling about your extended warranty . . . ” when you don’t even own a car?
We all revile these calls, and thankfully, the government is doing something about them. In the last few years, Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have taken a number of steps to stop robocalls and telephone scams.
What Are Robocalls?
Robocalls are phone calls with a prerecorded message, and they’re almost always illegal. Worse yet, robocalls trying to sell you something are often telemarketing scams.
There are specific exceptions in which robocalls are permitted. It’s not illegal for a company to send a prerecorded message that’s informational. Political parties and candidates, health care providers, charities, creditors, and debt collectors can send prerecorded messages under certain circumstances.
The gist is that if you receive a recorded message trying to sell you something, it’s illegal. For those common vehicle-warranty calls, scammers get your number from public records. They’re often selling warranties that car dealerships won’t honor.
Congress Takes Action
A bipartisan effort to expand the FCC’s powers and reduce the incidence of robocalls might have flown under your radar during the Trump administration. The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act of 2019 made several changes to U.S. law, including:
- Increased fines for robocalls, up to $10,000 per illegal call.
- Extended the ability for the FCC to collect fines to up to four years.
- Required phone companies to make faster efforts to adopt call-authentication technologies (at no additional charge to consumers).
- Required the FCC and service providers to develop a way to inform customers when they’re receiving a “spoofed” call—a call that looks like it’s coming from a familiar area code.
- Required the FCC to create rules to help consumers stop receiving unwanted texts and robotexts.
Many major providers, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, have already begun working on the spoof-call problem. The caller ID on your mobile phone may say “Scam Likely” or “Spam Likely” when a caller masks his or her real identity.
What Else Is the Government Doing?
Government agencies are implementing the TRACED Act and were taking steps against robocalls before it took effect as well. Some of their efforts:
- In December 2019, the FTC sued Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service provider Globex Telecom for assisting in a “reduce your credit card interest rate” scam. The FTC settled its suit against Globex and its U.S. subsidiaries for $1.95 million.
- In January 2020, the FTC sent letters to 19 VoIP providers, warning them about the potential consequences for violating consumer-protection laws.
- In March 2020, the FCC formed a Hospital Robocall Protection Group, which will create guidelines to protect hospitals from calls that divert workers’ attention. The FCC also required service providers to implement STIR/SHAKEN technology (which helps guard against spoof callers) by June 2021.
- In April 2020, the FTC sent numerous warning letters to VoIP providers assisting COVID-19 robocall scams. The FTC and FCC jointly sent a letter to USTelecom—the Broadband Association warning that if specific parties continued to route or transmit robocalls on its network, the FCC would authorize U.S. providers to block those calls.
- In May 2020, the FCC issued an order that beginning in July 2020, it would no longer send warning citations to those responsible for robocalls but rather fine them immediately.
- In June 2020, the FCC proposed a $225 million fine against John C. Spiller and Jakob A. Mears for a healthcare-related robocall scam. If the FCC wins, it’ll be the largest fine in FCC history.
- In July 2020, the FCC approved rules for when service providers can block illegal robocalls, including safe-harbor strictures that limit phone companies’ liability for blocking wanted calls.
Is It All Working?
The full impact of the TRACED Act, as well as the FCC and FTC’s actions, isn’t clear yet. It will take time for the two agencies to create and implement new rules, and fine robocallers, before there’s a nationwide decrease in the number of calls made. In January 2020, people logged 262,083 robocall complaints to the National Do Not Call Registry. Those numbers fell for the next several months, possibly due to the pandemic as well as government action. Numbers then rose again, peaking last September before dropping back to 265,492 complaints in December.
It will be interesting to see if robocalls decrease in 2021, and if so, by how much. YouMail, a free robocall-blocking app, reported a 15 percent increase in robocalls between January and February 2021. The company also noted the most common robocall is still the warranty scam, which was the source of an estimated 339 million calls in February.
The FTC and FCC are up against a challenging problem, particularly given that not all robocalls originate in the U.S. It’s much harder for the agencies to combat robocalls that originate in foreign countries.
What You Can Do
It helps to put your phone number on the Do Not Call Registry, but since robocalls tend to come from scammers, this alone won’t stop them. You’re better off screening your calls and not picking up for numbers you don’t recognize. If your phone provider doesn’t yet mark calls “Scam Likely,” you can look into apps that will block possible scam numbers for you.
Of course, these apps work only with mobile phones, and you can still get robocalls on a landline. In that case, it helps to get caller ID and screen your calls. Whether on a cellphone or landline, if you pick up, don’t press any numbers and don’t give the caller any personal or financial information. Hang up when you realize it’s a robocall. Report robocalls to the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov.
Have You Been Scammed?
Illegal robocalls almost always come from scam artists, including those ubiquitous extended-warranty calls. If you or a loved one have been victimized and had your identity or money stolen, you have options to get help. File a complaint at Fraud.org, an initiative of the National Consumers League, and it’ll send your report to the appropriate law-enforcement authority and the FTC. You also can call the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP or 877-ID-THEFT.
The next step is to notify your credit card issuer or bank about the fraud right away; they’ll be able to stop or reverse the transaction. Many institutions are familiar with fraud at this point, and you may get most or all of your money back. If you sent a wire transfer through Western Union or MoneyGram, or via an app such as Venmo or PayPal, report the fraud to the company. While the federal government can’t do much to assist you in this moment, there is help available. Don’t let embarrassment regarding the situation stop you from seeking help and getting your money back.
Victoria E. Langley is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and UIC John Marshall Law School in Chicago. She crafts high-quality legal content for law firms, legal service providers, and other organizations across the U.S. She resides in the Pacific Northwest, and when she isn’t writing, you can find her reading.