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Robocalls fuel jump in complaints to federal regulator

Millions of consumers are griping to the FTC about robocalls, which aren't just annoying -- they're also a big source of scams.

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Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Americans have had it with annoying robocalls and telemarketing calls: Complaints to federal regulators increased by 25% in the past year. 

In a biennial report to Congress published Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission said it received more than 5 million complaints about violations of rules tied to the Do Not Call Registry in fiscal year 2021, which ended Sept. 30. That's up from about 4 million complaints received in fiscal 2020. In fiscal 2019, the agency received nearly 5.4 million complaints, according to FTC data. 

Overwhelmingly, the FTC said, the complaints received last year were about robocalls, or prerecorded calls that are automated and made using an automatic dialer. Many of these calls were scams that involved callers pretending to be government officials or offering warranties, protection plans or customer technical assistance. The next big category of calls were related to reducing debt and addressing medical needs and prescriptions. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, the FTC has received more than 18,000 COVID-related Do Not Call complaints. 

"Consumer complaints about illegal calls -- especially robocalls -- have increased significantly," the agency said.

For years, illegal, recorded spam calls have been a scourge on the public. They're also the No. 1 consumer complaint made to the Federal Communications Commission, which has made battling them a top priority

Illegal robocalls aren't just annoying. Nearly 60 million Americans say they've fallen victim to a phone scam in the past year, like calls purporting to be from the IRS or from a company inquiring about an expiring warranty on a nonexistent car, according to a report from Truecaller, a company that makes a spam-blocking and caller ID app. In total, Americans have been swindled out of nearly $30 billion by phone scams over the past 12 months, according to a survey conducted by Truecaller and the Harris Poll. 

The FTC said in its report that the biggest driver of the robocalls was likely the use of technology that allows scammers and telemarketers to conceal their identities by "spoofing" their phone numbers. Spoofing allows robocallers to display a number to make it look like the call is coming from a trusted source, which makes it more likely that people will pick up the call. 

Another federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission, has been trying to crack down on the spoofing technology. A June 30 deadline by the FCC required major telephone companies to implement technology called Stir/Shaken, designed to curb spam calls by requiring voice providers to verify where calls are coming from. In December, the agency moved up the deadline for many smaller providers to comply with this technology.  

Experts say the crackdown has helped dampen the calls, but scammers continue to look for ways to trick Americans into picking up the phone and handing over money.

"Stir/Shaken has shut down one avenue," said Clayton LiaBraaten, senior advisory board member at Truecaller. "But it's making already very capable criminals even more sophisticated and sinister in their scams."

The FTC says it's important that it and the FCC work together to combat this problem.

"As new technology provides new challenges, both agencies actively seek to address and confront them by, among other things, encouraging private industry, other government agencies, academia, and other interested parties to create and develop new strategies to help consumers avoid unwanted telemarketing calls," the FTC said.

The agency has also launched a rulemaking initiative to combat business and government impersonation fraud.

In fiscal 2021, more than 2.8 million people added their phone numbers to the federal Do Not Call list, bringing the total to 244 million, according to the FTC. The Do Not Call Registry, which was signed into law in 2003, gives consumers, especially those with home landline telephones, the choice to register their numbers with the FTC to let telemarketers know they are not to be called with solicitations. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, passed in 1991, bars telemarketers from calling mobile phone customers without their express consent. While telemarketers are not supposed to be calling wireless mobile devices without  permission, the FTC says that consumers can also register their mobile numbers with the Do Not Call registry.