FTC warns phone companies not to help robocallers

The US Federal Trade Commission puts 19 internet-calling companies on notice.

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
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Phone companies could be held legally liable for the robocalls of their customers, according to the FTC. 

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In letters threatening legal action, the Federal Trade Commission warned 19 internet-based phone companies against assisting robocallers. The letters are the latest move from the US government as it ramps up efforts to stop robocalls.

The FTC didn't specify which voice over internet protocol ( VoIP ) phone companies it put on notice but said those companies could be held liable for assisting any robocaller clients who engage in illegal activity aimed at defrauding consumers. Specifically, the FTC pointed to clients who spoof phone numbers, call consumers who are on the National Do Not Call Registry, pose as a government agency or play prerecorded telemarketing messages. 

"VoIP service providers play a unique role in the robocall ecosystem, allowing fraudsters and abusive telemarketers to call consumers at a fraction of a penny per minute," said FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Andrew Smith in a Thursday release. "These warning letters put VoIP providers on notice that we will take action when they knowingly facilitate illegal robocalls."

The FTC said it can seek civil penalties and court injunctions to stop companies' violations of its anti-fraud Telemarketing Sales Rule. The agency also said it can seek money to refund consumers who were defrauded via illegal telemarketing calls.

The Justice Department's first enforcement of a civil complaint against carriers for facilitating robocalls on their networks saw "two major actions" filed in courts Tuesday. During 2019, 58.5 billion robocalls were made in the US, according to YouMail. On Dec. 5, the US House passed a bill to block robocalls, with the Senate passing the legislation later that month.