Why am I getting so many robocalls?

The Federal Communications Commission is working to help rid the world of the 2.5 billion spam calls made every month. Here's what it's up against.

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
7 min read
Watch this: How to stop robocalls

People with landline home phones have long suffered unwanted marketing calls. Now these spam calls have made their way to our mobile phones in a big way.

ILLUSTRATION: Robocall Frustration

Robocalls to cell phones are illegal, so why am I still getting so many unwanted calls?

Detroit Free Press

If you've noticed a surge in annoying robocalls on your smartphone, you're not alone. An estimated 2.5 billion automated calls are being made each month, according to YouMail, which offers a robocall-blocking app. Three quarters of wireless customers feel like the number of unwanted calls has increased over the past year, and the calls cost Americans an estimated $350 million each year, according to Consumers Union.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said robocalls are a top consumer complaint. 

"Americans are mad as hell" that they still get these calls even after efforts by Congress and the FCC to stop them, he said. The FCC gets more than 200,000 complaints each year about unwanted calls. They're not the only ones hearing from us -- the Federal Trade Commission said it received roughly 5.3 million complaints about telemarketing calls in 2016.

The FCC wants to crack down on unwanted robocalls and it's looking at ways to help us block them. It's also been stepping up enforcement of illegal robocalls. Last week, the agency voted to fine a New Mexico-based company $2.88 million for making unlawful robocalls. And last month, the FCC fined a Florida resident $120 million for allegedly making almost 100 million illegal robocalls in a three-month period.

But ridding the world of robocalls entirely is tricky because some legitimate communications are made using automated call technology. That includes weather alerts and messages from schools, public utilities and political organizations. Phone companies don't want to block legitimate calls that consumers may want to receive.

Here's what you need to know to understand what's going on with robocalls.

Why am I getting so many more annoying calls now?

Telemarketing tech that uses automated dialers to make so-called robocalls is pretty simple and inexpensive to set up and run. All you need is a computer connected to a modem and a program that selects and dials numbers from a database. Other features can be added too, such as recording calls or detecting when a person has answered.  

Because the cost of making these calls has pretty much come down to zero and it's possible to make the calls from offshore -- where they're harder to trace and crack down on -- it's become an easy and attractive method for scammers.

Will registering my number on the Do Not call List help if I don't want to get these calls?

Here's the thing: Making telemarketing robocalls of any kind to your wireless phone without your permission is already against the law. So you don't even need to register your mobile number on the Do Not Call List. All autodialed or prerecorded non-emergency calls to wireless phones are prohibited without prior expressed consent, regardless of the call's content.

The 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) restricts anyone from using automatic telephone dialing systems and artificial or prerecorded voice messages to market stuff to you. The FCC revised rules around this law in 2012 to spell out and make clear what obtaining consent is.  

Now telemarketers must:

  • obtain prior express written consent from consumers before robocalling them.
  • no longer use an "established business relationship" to avoid getting consent.
  • provide an automated, interactive "opt-out" mechanism during each robocall so consumers can immediately tell the telemarketer to stop calling.

So why am I still getting these calls?

There are a few reasons.

  • You may have actually given your consent to a company to make these calls. And maybe you didn't know you'd done so.
  • Your phone number has been reassigned and the previous person who had that number had consented to getting marketing calls and the company calling you hasn't updated its list. (The FCC is currently considering a proposal to fix this issue. I'll explain what they're doing below.)
  • The people calling you are scammers and they don't care about the law. This is probably the most likely answer to this question.

When would I be asked to consent to something like this?

If you've ever checked a box when signing up for a service, website or at a retailer asking if they can market directly to you, you may have given consent to receive marketing calls. 

What about when I sign up for a loyalty card program at the grocery store or pharmacy? When I give out my phone number to identify my account, am I also giving my permission to get telemarketing calls?

Not unless you checked a box in your agreement or signed something that stated you explicitly give permission to be marketed to on your phone. The FCC has been clear in its rules that just having a business relationship with a company or giving your mobile phone number to someone doesn't allow them to use it for telemarketing purposes. 

The rules around giving consent are trickier to interpret. In addition to FCC rules, the Federal Trade Commission also has regulations for robocalls under its Telemarketing Sales Rules. The FTC's interpretation of consent is more strict and it requires more explicit written consent. So for instance, simply checking off a box when signing up for a service isn't enough under the FTC's rules to provide consent to telemarketers who use automatic dialers to call you.

Can I revoke my permission?

In most cases, yes you can. But there are also instances when you can't. If you've consented to marketing calls as part of a contract, the courts have ruled you can't break a binding contract to revoke your permission without the consent of the other party in the contract. A good example is if you've signed up for a car loan and as part of the contract, it says you agree to get marketing from the company.

Are there any type of calls that are exempt from the robocall rules issued by the FCC or the FTC?

There are several exemptions. Calls made for debt collection, charitable solicitation, political causes or campaigns and surveys are all exempt from these rules. 

What's the FCC doing to curb robocalls?

The FCC knows that the majority of robocalls are coming from companies or individuals who don't care they're breaking the law. So it's trying to make it easier for phone companies and app developers to come up with ways to block unwanted robocalls.

In March, the FCC began looking at ways to block calls from "spoofed" or fake phone numbers. Sometimes scammers are using numbers that have never been assigned, so it's clear that it's not a legitimate call. The FCC is hoping to make it easier for phone companies to block those calls. Right now, carriers are required to complete all calls made to their customers.

The FCC just voted on robocalls. What was that all about?

Last week, the commission voted on two items related to ridding the world of unwanted robocalls. 

First, it voted to evaluate a system that would let phone companies check if a number calling you is legit. This call authentication system could help improve third-party apps that allow consumers to block unwanted calls and allow phone companies to offer call blocking as a service.

The second thing it voted on was a proposal to consider how to prevent unwanted calls after a number has been reassigned to a different customer. Currently, legitimate companies that make telemarketing calls have no way of knowing if a phone number has been reassigned. This means customers who haven't given consent for marketing calls are getting them. It also means that legitimate companies making these calls to customers who don't want the calls are in violation of the law and are subject to stiff penalties.

To help resolve this issue, the FCC is considering whether wireless companies should be required to report when numbers have been reassigned so a database can be created. Companies could access the database so they aren't calling numbers that have been reassigned to a new customer.

What has the FTC been doing to stop these calls?

The FTC has been actively involved in bringing law enforcement actions to stop illegal telemarketing and robocalls. It's filed complaints in more than 100 cases. In June, the FTC received the largest court-ordered robocalling judgement ever against satellite TV provide Dish Network for $160 million. 

Are there apps that could help me block these calls?

Yes, there are several. The CTIA Wireless Association has put together a list of apps available for call blocking based on the operating system you use. Here's the list of Android phones. Here's the list for Apple IOS phones.

What can I do now?

  • Ask your phone company to offer robocall-blocking technology -- most of them offer some form of protection, although a few will charge you a fee.
  • If you use a robocall-blocking app or your carrier provides technology already, it often helps to let that company know which numbers are producing unwanted calls so they can help block those calls for you and others.
  • Don't pick up the phone when someone from an unknown or suspicious number is calling you. This is often how scammers know it's a legit number to target and they may sell your number to other telemarketers and scammers.
  • File a complaint with the FCC or the FTC. The FCC can issue warning citations and impose fines against companies violating or suspected of violating the do-not-call rules. But it doesn't award individual damages. The FTC can file lawsuits against companies or individuals violating its rules.
  • Consider filing a lawsuit, if you can find out who is making the calls. Companies are "strictly" liable for unwanted robocalls made without explicit written consent. And since damages start at a minimum of $500 per unwanted robocall, the penalties can add up.
  • Forward spam text messages sent from a phone number to 7726 (or SPAM). This free text exchange with the wireless carrier reports the spam number and you'll receive a response from the carrier thanking you for reporting the spam.

If you need more information, check out the FCC's website here. The CTIA also offers some good advice on its site as well. 

First published on July 19 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update 10:45 a.m. PT:
 Adds information from the Federal Trade Commission on how it regulates and polices robocalls. 

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