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FCC to get tough on robotexts

As the agency cracks down on robocalls, criminals are shifting to automated text messages to run their scams.

Text messages on a smartphone screen
Tim Robberts via Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission wants to put an end to illegal robotext messages. On Monday, Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency will consider rules to require mobile wireless companies to block illegal text messaging.

The FCC is already battling illegal robocalls -- automatic dialers flood consumers' phones with unwanted calls, many of them scams, such as those offering fake car warranties. Criminals also use robocalls to steal personal information, such as calls that impersonate government agencies like the IRS. 

Earlier this summer, the FCC mandated that all major phone companies implement a technology called Stir/Shaken to cut down on spoofed phone calls, which disguise the identity of the caller. But criminals have been adapting their techniques to get around the new restrictions, including turning to fraudulent text messages. 

According to the spam blocking app RoboKiller, 7.4 billion spam texts were sent in March 2021 alone.

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The FCC says that in 2020 it received approximately 14,000 consumer complaints about unwanted text messages, which was an almost 146% increase from 2019. So far in 2021, the FCC says it has received more than 9,800 consumer complaints about unwanted texts.  

"We've seen a rise in scammers trying to take advantage of our trust of text messages by sending bogus robotexts that try to trick consumers to share sensitive information or click on malicious links," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "It's time we take steps to confront this latest wave of fraud and identify how mobile carriers can block these automated messages before they have the opportunity to cause any harm."

The proposed changes would apply many of the same rules and technologies used to combat robocalls to text messaging, including requiring carriers to block illegal robotexts and applying caller authentication standards to text messaging.

Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET last month that the problem has no easy fix. One issue she cited is the difficulty in making sure the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, which is the primary law that gives the FCC authority to go after criminals and fraudsters, is up to date to handle 21st century technology.

"I don't know about you, but I wasn't texting in 1991," she said. "So it's like fitting the proverbial square peg in a round hole -- figuring out how to take these new technologies and fitting them into old laws."