The Federal Communications Commission reports robocalls increased 46 percent from 2017 to 2018 — to more than 26 billion — and will surely rise more this year. And even if you’ve put your number on the federal Do Not Call Registry, there are many companies and organizations still allowed to call you, and many more that shouldn’t, but do anyway.
With the 2020 election around the corner, especially here in New Hampshire, you can expect more political polls and campaign calls than ever. Those are allowed, as are charitable solicitations and calls from businesses you’ve agreed — usually in the unread fine print of an online contract — to hear from.
The FCC last year began pushing telephone carriers to implement more strenuous call-blocking and identifying methods to protect consumers. The technology exists to offer more protection from robocalls and spam. It’s long been available through apps and services for a price. Telecom giants T-Mobile and AT&T offer it free, on at least some devices, and Verizon rolled out a basic free app last month, though it’s still pushing its $2.99/month call filtering service.
Eventually, all major carriers will need to employ the same sort of service, including for prepaid accounts. But that’s still just a start. What’s really needed is for Congress to put its foot down. Otherwise, the FCC estimates, we’re headed for a reality where robocalls and spam account for more than half of all calls placed, as early as this year.
Five robocall bills have been introduced in the House so far this session; the Senate has put forth three more. So there may be some hope for a reprieve in the next year or so. One promising bill is HR 2015, introduced this week and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which would give the FCC a longer window — up to three years — to catch and penalize robocallers. It would increase penalties to as much as $10,000 per call. And it would require carriers to implement call identity validation to stop spoofing — when callers use a false number or area code to hide their identity and make it more likely you’ll answer. Ann Kuster and Vermont Democrat Peter Welch are members of the committee, and we’d urge support of the bill.
But also needed is better enforcement of the laws, whatever they require. The FCC and Federal Trade Commission are responsible for such enforcement, but have no power to levy penalties. That leaves them pretty much toothless in discouraging robocallers. A Wall Street Journal report last week found the FCC has issued $208.4 million in fines against robocallers in the past three years, but the Justice Department, which actually implements the fines, has collected only $6,790.
That’s not just pitiful; it’s an indication the system is broken, either through a lack of resources or a willful refusal to crack down on the practice.