The FCC is adopting new regulations to stop international scam robocalls.
Why it matters
Robocalls are the No. 1 complaint to the FCC, and scammers have swindled billions of dollars out of Americans. Slowing the flow of these calls is a top priority for the agency, and it's trying to close remaining loopholes.
The US Federal Communications Commission has prioritized fighting illegal robocalls over the past few years, and the agency continues to turn up the heat in 2022. Last week, the agency passed regulations targeted at overseas phone scammers, but the push to end robocalls is far from finished.
At its May public meeting, the FCC voted on its latest effort to protect consumers. It's going after international scam robocall campaigns that enter American networks through so-called gateway providers. These gateway providers, which are smaller, low-profile companies that hand off calls from network to network, are often used by foreign scammers to disguise phone calls entering the US. The new FCC requirements will ensure that the gateway providers are verifying calls before they pass them on to other operators in the states.
"Robocalls are aggravating," FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said at the FCC's May open meeting. "What is worse is when we crack down on these junk calls, the scam artists behind them find new ways to reach us. Increasingly, that means robocalls are coming in from overseas. In fact, one study suggests that last year as much as two-thirds of this stuff may now come from abroad."
She added that now is the time to "get tough on international robocalls" and to "cut these calls off before they reach our shores, our homes, and our phones."
These new rules for gateway providers, which were adopted unanimously by the FCC at its meeting last week, are the latest in a long series of actions taken by the FCC to curb illegal robocalls. In February, Rosenworcel proposed another set of rules aimed at protecting consumers from automated ringless calls.
For years, the scourge of illegal robocalls has plagued the public. It's the No. 1 consumer complaint and a top priority at the FCC. Since June 30, 2021, every major voice provider in the US, including phone companies AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile and cable provider Comcast, has been required to implement a technology called Stir/Shaken, which is designed to curb the tide of spam calls by requiring voice providers to verify where calls are coming from.
In addition to implementing Stir/Shaken, the FCC has also been building partnerships with state and district attorneys general to ensure cooperation in robocall investigations. In March, the agency announced it was adding seven AGs to its list, bringing the total number of partnerships to 22.
Here is what the FCC and others have been doing to stamp out robocalls:
What is Stir/Shaken and how does it fit into the FCC's efforts to curb illegal robocalls?
Stir/Shaken is a technology that ensures calls traveling through phone networks have their caller ID "signed" as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before the calls reach you. In short, the technology authenticates a phone call's origin and makes certain the information on the caller ID matches.
In 2019 Congress passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (Traced) Act, which mandated that the FCC come up with rules requiring all voice service providers to use this protocol to stop caller ID spoofing. The FCC set a deadline of June 30, 2021, for all major carriers to implement the technology.
What is caller ID spoofing?
Spoofing is when callers disguise their identity to deliberately falsify information transmitted to your caller ID display. Scammers do this to make calls less easily traceable. Also, by using so-called neighbor spoofing, which makes it appear as though the number is a local one that you may already know or trust, scammers try to trick you into picking up a call.
What else was included in the Traced Act to fight illegal robocalls?
In addition to the Stir/Shaken mandate, the legislation required the FCC to set up the Robocall Mitigation Database, and it required all voice providers to provide detailed information to this database that describes how they are implementing Stir/Shaken and to explain what other efforts they've made to stop illegal robocalls. The law also gave the FCC authority to fine companies that fail to certify their efforts to stop robocalls.
Additionally, the law required the FCC to establish rules and to select a single industry group to be in charge of tracing the origin of suspected illegal robocalls. In 2020, the FCC designated USTelecom's Industry Traceback Group as the official consortium for coordinating traceback efforts. By law, voice providers are required to cooperate with traceback requests from ITG.
The law also expanded the authority and reach of state and federal law enforcement to go after illegal robocallers.
Are all carriers required to use Stir/Shaken?
Previously, the FCC had given small providers, those with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, until June 30, 2023, to implement Stir/Shaken. The extension was meant to allow smaller providers to evaluate the implementation costs and plan deployment. But in December, the FCC pushed up the deadline by a year for some smaller providers, because the agency said there's evidence a large volume of illegal robocalls are coming from a subset of smaller providers.
Has Stir/Shaken slowed the flow of robocalls?
Stir/Shaken on its own hasn't had a major effect on robocalls, experts say. Like a game of whack-a-mole, whenever regulators or law enforcement smack down one way that robocalls are made, scammers change tactics and use a different method. Experts say that's what happened after Stir/Shaken went into effect. Illegal robocallers moved away from using spoofed phone numbers made to look like a call is coming from a neighbor. Now they're buying lists of real phone numbers to trick spam-blocking software into letting the calls through.
What about other efforts to curb robocalls?
Alex Quilici, CEO of Youmail, which tracks and analyzes robocall traffic, said there are reasons to be optimistic that efforts to curb robocalls are working. He said the total volume of these annoying calls has dropped since its peak in 2019. Americans received 50.5 billion robocalls in 2021, a 14% lower volume than the peak year of 2019, with over 58 billion robocalls, but approximately 10% higher than 2020, with 45.9 billion robocalls.
"Overall, there's been a decline in robocall volume when you look at it over an extended period of time," Quilici said in an interview.
He attributes this to increased enforcement action by the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission and state law enforcement. He said that traceback efforts have helped identify scammers and that those efforts are leading enforcement agencies to shut down these operations and to impose hefty fines. He added that wireless operators are also taking a more active role in tracing and blocking calls, which has also helped.
So does this mean that Stir/Shaken has been a big failure?
No, not at all. Qulici said Stir/Shaken has been very helpful because it's pushed the bad actors to use legitimate phone numbers, which can be more easily traced.
"Stir/Shaken has definitely been helpful," he said. "But it's just one piece of the puzzle."
The real problem is that there's a lot of money to be made in scamming people, which is what continues to fuel criminals' efforts. Robocalls are cheap to make, and scammers all over the world use them to defraud billions of dollars from Americans every year.
Why is the FCC focused on gateway providers?
While Stir/Shaken and other FCC efforts have made a dent in slowing these annoying calls, experts note there's still a big problem in stopping the calls coming from outside the US, because US regulators and law enforcement are unable to enforce US laws overseas.
"We're hearing from a lot of the domestic carriers that an increasing number of calls are coming from abroad -- the ones that look like they're scams," the FCC's Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET last summer. She added that it has been especially challenging for US regulators and law enforcement to trace criminals back into "jurisdictions where there might be some actors who can scurry away before we can find them."
While the US may not be able to go after these criminals overseas, they can try to stop the calls from entering the US. And that's where the new rules for gateway providers comes in.
The new FCC regulations will require gateway providers to stop robocalls as they enter the US. The proposed regulation would put additional requirements on US-based gateway providers that pass voice traffic to other networks in the states.
What will the FCC's latest rules actually do?
The new FCC regulations require gateway providers to cooperate with FCC enforcement efforts and react quickly to trace illegal robocalls to their source. Failure to follow the proposed rules could result in fines from the FCC and could lead to mandatory blocking by other network operators in the US, essentially ending the gateway providers' ability to operate.
What's next in the fight to end robocalls?
Lawmakers in Congress have proposed legislation to impose stiffer penalties on illegal robocallers and fraudsters. Sens. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act. It would provide liability protections for privately led efforts to trace back the origins of illegal and abusive robocalls. The two Senate Commerce Committee members had authored the Traced Act.
A group of 51 attorneys general led by North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, are calling on the FCC to reduce unwanted robocallers' access to real phone numbers.
"With coordinated activity -- with many more mallets smacking this problem -- we're going to be more capable of bringing it to a stop," Rosenworcel said in a CNET interview last year.
"We're just getting started. We have more work to do, and we have a new vigor to make it happen."
Youmail's Quilici said he's confident that the combined efforts from the FCC, law enforcement and the carriers, which are also identifying and blocking robocalls, will significantly curb the volume of robocalls. But he said the bad news is that as volumes decline, criminals will likely make their scams more targeted. For example, scammers may target senior citizens with calls about Medicare prescription benefits, or new college graduates may get scammed by callers pretending to be student loan administrators.
"If you're a bad guy and you can find a way to target just the 50,000 people who are really going to respond to your scam, you don't need to make 100 million calls anymore," he said. "That's good news in terms of not getting bombarded with calls. But without the high volume in traffic to trace and follow, those scams aimed at people like missiles are really hard to detect."