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Robocall

Charging for Call Whitelisting Could Hamper Robocall Fight, Small Provider Says

Small provider says cost and fast-moving deadlines making it hard to implement robocall regulations.

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From left to right: Bob McCausland, Greg Rogers, Michael Pryor, Sheba Chacko

November 9, 2021 – A representative at a small voice service provider is warning that alleged anticompetitive behavior, such as charging customers for whitelisting phone numbers, can slow progress on the illegal robocall fight.

“We have to be careful about [anticompetitive] practices like having customers pay to be on a whitelist to have their calls go through,” said Greg Rogers, head of global policy and regulatory affairs at communications software company Bandwidth, at the INCOMPAS 2021 conference in Las Vegas on October 25. “Those kinds of practices are bad for smaller businesses less able to cover the cost of these new solutions.”

“Whitelisting” is a tool that allows only calls from numbers in someone’s contact list. Some companies already offer these capabilities for free, but others may charge for them. Rogers said he thinks voice companies should offer the service to the general public for free and not as an additional cost “add on” service.

Rogers said these additional charged services can help larger companies pay for their compliance with the STIR/SHAKEN framework, which requires voice service providers to place measures to combat illegal robocalls that often lead to scams that affect millions of Americans. Those new measures include analytics software that labels calls based on authenticity. The deadline for large providers to implement these rules was June 30 this year and June 30, 2022 for smaller providers.

Despite the longer timeline for smaller players to implement the rules, Rogers said it is going to be harder for them to do so without the additional revenue stream.

Cumbersome deadlines

Rogers warned that the FCC may be pushing the industry too hard for deadlines that are hard to meet. “We’re moving too fast in implementation and expectations are not being set appropriately,” he said. “It’s a bipartisan, political winner to be against robocalling, and we’ve seen a really fast, hard driving set of demands.” Rogers pointed to the FCC’s December 2020 mandates as a good example of demands that are hard to meet. The FCC’s Fourth Report and Order required voice providers to add call blocking notifications to indicate that a call is unwanted. “The pushback is, it’s too hard. We can’t do it that fast, we need more time.”

Rogers said the complexity of the issues combined with a globally interconnected network makes it hard to deliver consistent service while optimizing their systems for call blocking.

“I didn’t say we should move slow, but people have to recognize how hard it is,” Rogers said. “[the call blocking effort] will march forward and that’s good. Don’t get expectations set that it’s gonna be fixed tomorrow. It’s not.”

The industry-wide endeavor to eliminate harmful robocalling continues as robocalls have risen over the past month. Analytics company YouMail’s call blocking data shows that Americans received over 4 billion robocalls in October, increasing 3.1 percent since September. So far this year, Americans have received 42.8 billion robocalls. Since robocall mitigation tools took effect on June 30, robocalls decreased about 8 percent per month on average.

Reporter Justin Perkins is graduate of Howard University School of Law, with a focus on telecommunications and technology. He has in-house experience at the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast and NBC. He brings curiosity and insight to broadband news.

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Robocall

FCC Proposes ‘Record-Breaking’ Fine on Robocall Scammer

The FCC alleges that the Cox/Jones Enterprise conduct violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

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Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday proposed a near $300 million fine on an apparently fraudulent robocall and spoofing operation, the largest fine of its type to date, according to the agency.

Claiming to have information about recipients’ auto warranties, the so-called “Cox/Jones Enterprise” placed more than five billion scam robocalls in early 2021, the FCC alleges. The agency says these calls were made to more than a half a million phones and used over a million unique caller ID numbers. The operation made these calls from various American and foreign entities, including entities located in Panama and Hungary, the commission says.

The FCC alleges that the Cox/Jones Enterprise conduct violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s provisions that robocallers must obtain express consent from the recipient before calling a mobile phone and that they must identify themselves at the beginning of the call. The enterprise is also illegally used phony caller IDs to appear near to call recipients, the agency says.

The fine was unanimously proposed at the commission’s December open meeting, at which Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel committed to continued action against phone scammers.

“Earlier this month, we ordered phone companies to block the company responsible for up to 40 percent of scam calls involving student loans. Plus, we now have agreements with 43 State Attorney Generals (sic), the District of Columbia, and Guam to go after illegal robocalls – just like we did here with the Ohio Attorney General,” Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement. “So our message is clear to those who would follow in the footsteps of the auto warranty scammers – we are watching, we are working with our state counterparts, and we will find you, block you, and hold you accountable.”

On Tuesday, the FCC announced a new online portal for entities to report robocall and spoofing violations. The agency in November took action to crack down on straight-to-voicemail robocalls and in October launched an inquiry into combatting calls on non-internet-protocol networks.

The FCC moves to streamline space authorizations

At Wednesday’s meeting, the FCC unanimously approved a notice of proposed rulemaking that would expedite satellite and earth station applications, following Rosenworcel’s November announcement of a new space bureau. Commissioners touted the American space industry’s accelerating rate of satellite deployments and called for updated regulation to facilitate the sector’s further growth.

In their comments, Rosenworcel and Commissioner Brendan Carr praised the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, a recently introduced bipartisan bill from Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., and Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that would facilitate satellite permitting. Commissioner Nathan Simington endorsed the bill earlier this month.

The FCC sought comment on measures to combat digital discrimination, including via proposals to define the term, update the agency’s consumer complaint mechanism, and provide “model policies” and “best practices” to states and localities. The agency also proposed rules to improve emergency responses by requiring wireless and some text providers to facilitate location-based routing on their internet protocol-based networks. Lastly, the FCC proposed a new compensation structure for certain providers to improve captioned phone calls for the deaf and hard of hearing.

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Robocall

FCC Opens Robocall Reporting Portal

The portal provides private entities the ability to notify the FCC about robocall violations.

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Photo of Loyaan Egal, chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau on Thursday announced a new web portal that allows private entities to report robocall and spoofing violations.

“Uses of this form might include a corporation or association experiencing a deluge of robocalls overwhelming their internal phone network, voice service providers that found evidence of illegal robocalls traversing their networks, or private entities that have had their number(s) spoofed,” the FCC’s portal says.

The category “private entities” does not include individuals.

“This new tool will help us support companies and businesses that see their phone lines jammed with robocalls or their valuable and hard-won brand awareness undercut by scammers spoofing their numbers,” said Loyaan Egal, chief of the Enforcement Bureau.  “While we will always rely on consumer complaints about massive robocall campaigns and have existing lines of communications with many public institutions, we now also have a direct line of communications with private entities that sometimes seem under siege by robocalls and now have an avenue to reach out for help.”

The elimination of illegal robocalls has of late been a priority for the FCC, and the agency has taken several actions to squash them in recent months. A recent report by Truecaller found that in the twelve months preceding May 2022, scam callers pried $39.5 billion from 68.4 million Americans. These year-over-year figures rose sharply from $29.8 billion lost and 59.4 million victims in 2021.

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Robocall

Experts Discuss Enforcement Against Imposter Fraud, Other Consumer Protection Issues

Imposter fraud is a particularly predatory offshoot of robocalling, often involving extremely sophisticated scams.

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Image by Ityuan used under license from Adobe Stock

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2022 — Consumer protection efforts from telecommunications companies and federal agencies need to tackle imposter fraud in addition to robocalling, said experts at a Federal Communications Bar Association event Monday.

Imposter fraud is a particularly predatory offshoot of robocalling, involving real individuals instead of or in addition to automated messages. These scams can be very sophisticated and tailored toward individual consumers, panelists said.

By pretending to be associated with the IRS or government aid programs, imposter fraud primarily targets vulnerable communities, including non-native English speakers, low-income individuals and the elderly.

State and federal enforcement agencies should take more aggressive action to stop these bad actors, panelists said.

Another important step toward consumer protection is updating education efforts to reflect the increasing sophistication and complexity of scams. Many consumers rely on security advice that is now outdated, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

“The idea of, ‘Don’t click the link, you should call someone”—well, now they fake numbers,” he said. “So if you call rather than click the link, you’re still talking to a to a criminal.”

While many consumers know to not give out their bank information or social security number, newer scams frequently ask for information that may seem less important, such as utility account numbers. Scammers can then use that information to perpetrate various forms of identity theft.

With scamming tactics changing every few months, telecommunications companies should provide continued consumer education beyond their initial onboarding, said Stuart Drobny, president of Stumar Investigations.

Panelists discussed a variety of actions being taken to combat robocalls, generally describing them as positive steps but not full solutions.

Although STIR/SHAKEN implementation – the Federal Communications Commission’s framework to combat illegal robocalls – has made progress, bad actors have found a workaround by purchasing thousands of legitimate phone numbers, said Diana Eisner, vice president of policy and advocacy at USTelecom.

The FCC’s actions against voice over internet protocol providers are “very promising and so far have been proven to be very effective,” said Len Briley, senior legal counsel for DIRECTV.

Other consumer protection issues involve the ACP and provider disclosures

Panelists also discussed the benefits and weaknesses of the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes internet services for low-income households.

The ACP has been life-changing for many of the program’s participants, Feld said, citing a digital equity report released by Cox on Friday. About half of the survey participants reported that they had been unable to afford home internet prior to the ACP. Nearly all participants reported significant benefits from home internet, particularly for participating in remote learning, accessing educational resources and completing schoolwork from home.

Despite the program’s value, it has also been the subject of multiple fraud controversies. Some of these problems have emerged when consumers are not fully informed about the requirements, Feld said.

“You have lifeline recipients who get a contact from their phone lifeline provider and they say, ‘Hey, we’d like to upgrade you to a new contract,’ and they don’t tell them that it’s an ACP program… and then when [consumers] try to apply their ACP benefit, which is a one per household for a wireline connection, they discover that they can’t because they have used their ACP benefit for wireless.”

In October, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., raised concerns about several internet service providers engaging in potential “abusive, misleading, fraudulent, or otherwise predatory behaviors” related to the ACP.

Another FCC consumer protection initiative is the new broadband “nutrition label” requirement, mandating that internet providers display standardized performance metrics, monthly rates and other relevant information at points of sale.

Eisner praised the initiative, saying that the FCC had reached a good balance of ensuring that the labels would present important information without becoming unwieldy or overly complicated.

Although consumer groups called for a requirement that these labels be included on monthly internet bills, this requirement did not make it into the final order. In failing to include it, the FCC “missed something that would be a very significant benefit to consumers,” Feld said.

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