Fort Report: Hanging Up on Robocalls

Jul 12, 2019
Fort Report

A few months ago, I received a call on my personal cell phone.  Not recognizing the number, but answering after a few rings, I was asked by the “Social Security Administration” to provide my personal identification information at the “request of the government.”  Strange.  So, I did some research.  It was, as I suspected, a robocall scam.  The Social Security Administration does not ask for personal information over the telephone.

Every day, millions of Americans are interrupted by a phone call from a number with the exact area code and first three digits of their phone number.  Is it a neighbor?  A friend?  A business opportunity?  The scam is ingenious, and it works.  You may have had the experience too.  After a few rings, you pick up the phone.  After a slight pause, a voice comes on, often to perpetuate a fraud.  It’s hard not to pick up the phone again the next time your phone number is “ghosted” or “spoofed.” 

Here’s what’s going on.  An automated computer system simultaneously dials tens of thousands of phone numbers to create a list of live targets.  That initial robocall you receive, with silence on the other end, is the “reconnaissance call” that scammers deploy to determine if there is a person on the other end.  If you talk, cough, or grumble, it knows you’re there.  The next step for scammers is to gather your personal information (credit card number, birth date, password, Social Security number).  They often do this by giving you a second call with a prerecorded voice, like the one I received.

Here’s the problem: Although many of us no longer pick up the phone, even if it comes from our area code, unlawful robocalls have metastasized from annoyance, to nuisance, to scourge.  The year 2017 saw 30 billion robocalls placed.  In 2018, an estimated 47.8 billion robocalls were placed, with 17.7 billion (37%) being scams.  Through just the first half of 2019, an estimated 29 billion robocalls were placed, on pace to easily break 2018’s numbers. 

Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) play an important role in combating this scourge.  The FTC receives roughly 170,000 complaints about robocalls a month, their highest complaint category.  Here’s the other problem: Robocall scammers continue to stay ahead of measures that the FTC and FCC implement.  Telephone companies, cell phone manufacturers, and other vendors have also posited solutions to the robocall epidemic, but these solutions often cause other problems, such as accidentally blocking legitimate non-scam phone numbers.  

I recently cosponsored H.R. 3375, the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, to more effectively address the problem.  Eliminating the menace of robocalls is something that America can rally behind.  This legislation offers common sense solutions designed to put Americans back in charge of their phones.  The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act requires telephone companies to offer call-block services to persons at no charge and use technology to authenticate caller I.D. in order to stop the rampant, disturbing practice of phone number “spoofing” by scammers.  The bill also revises the tools the FCC has in its toolbox to go after robocallers and enacts safeguards to prevent companies from abusing robocall exemptions.

I hope that the early bipartisan backing of the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act translates into widespread congressional and administration support.  Until that time, the FTC has several tools to help protect you from robocalls.  You can report any phone call scam or identity theft, sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry, or learn tips to reduce your chances of receiving a robocall at the FTC Complaint Assistant Website

If you require assistance in interacting with the FTC or FCC, or need help reporting a scam, please contact my office.  The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act is a good step to hang up on robocalls once and for all.