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FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel Proposes ‘Ringless Voicemail’ Restrictions

The measure would restrict unwanted voicemails appearing in consumers’ inboxes.

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Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at a 2018 Senate Hearing

WASHINGTON, February 3, 2022 — Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed Wednesday to prevent “ringless” voicemails.

If adopted by the Commission, the regulation would require callers to obtain a consumer’s consent before delivering a “ringless voicemail,” a message left in their mailbox without ringing their cell phone.

“Ringless voicemail can be annoying, invasive, and can lead to fraud like other robocalls–so it should face the same consumer protection rules,” said Rosenworcel. “No one wants to wade through voicemail spam messages because their mailbox is full.”

The chairwoman’s proposal argues against a petition by the robocalling company All About Message, which asserted that ringless voicemails are technically not “calls” and thus should not be protected under the TCPA.

The proposal comes as U.S. phones received more than 50 billion robocalls in 2021, said YouMail Robocall Index. The number is significantly higher than in 2020: 4 billion robocalls reached consumers according to the FCC’s estimate.

The commission’s fight against robocalls finds its authority under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibits unwanted robocalls. The law also prohibits any non-emergency call using an artificial or prerecorded voice to a telephone number without the prior express consent of the called party.

The FCC has made defeating robocallers and spoof callers a top agency priority in recent years. Rosenworcel continues this legacy, declaring that “this FCC action would continue to empower consumers to choose which parties they give permission to contact them.” The Chairwoman has said the agency “is not going to stop until we get robocallers, spoofers, and scammers off the line.”

Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at a 2018 Senate Hearing

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.

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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