Feds threaten to cut off service providers allowing illegal COVID-19 related robocalls

The US Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission say "gateway" providers must crack down on these unwanted calls, or else.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read
Juj Winn/Getty Images

The US Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission are demanding that telecommunications service providers help stop illegal coronavirus-related robocalls. On Friday the agencies warned three gateway providers that are facilitating COVID-19-related scam robocalls originating overseas to cut off these calls or face serious consequences. 

The agencies said in a press release that unless the calls are stopped within the next 48 hours, the agencies will allow other service providers to block all calls coming from these gateway providers. 

The FCC and FTC have been working with the US Department of Justice to take this unprecedented action, the agencies said.  

"When it comes to scam robocalls, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. "The choice is simple: Move forward as responsible network providers, or see themselves cut off from the phone system."

The three gateway providers the FCC and FTC put on notice are SIPJoin of Suffolk, Virginia, Connexum of Orange, California, and VoIP Terminator/BLMarketing of Lake Mary, Florida. The Traceback Group, a consortium of phone companies that help officials track down suspect calls, identified the companies allowing the calls into the US. The FCC said it wrote to the trade group USTelecom to ask its members to begin blocking calls from these providers if the flood of robocalls isn't cut off within 48 hours.

Robocalls have surged in the past month amid the coronavirus pandemic. US consumers have received more than 132 million robocalls in March, according to YouMail, which has an app that blocks these unwanted calls. Scammers are using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to target vulnerable Americans. Some of these calls have offered fake COVID-19 testing kits or nonexistent medical equipment. 

Watch this: Tips to stop robocalls

Last week, leaders in the Senate wrote to the FCC and DOJ, urging these agencies to do more to stop coronavirus-related robocalls. Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, who authored the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act that recently was signed into law, said "robocalls that spread misinformation about cures, peddle ineffective equipment and offer bogus medical advice have the potential to inflict significant harm on individuals and communities across the country."

The FCC has already launched a COVID-19 Consumer Warnings and Safety Tips webpage to alert consumers to the proliferation of these phone and text scams related to the coronavirus pandemic.  And the FTC recommends that people hang up on or block robocallers. 

"The FTC will not stand for illegal robocallers that harm the public, particularly in the middle of a health crisis," FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement. "These warning letters make clear that VoIP providers who help illegal robocallers prey on fears surrounding the Coronavirus are squarely in our sights."

Consumers can also file reports with the FTC if they receive unwanted robocalls.