Most people agree it is impolite to call someone during dinner, but robots are not known for their social graces. A report released last month predicts that by next year, nearly half of all cellphone calls will come from scammers. The question is, who is going to do something about it?
New technologies allow rip-off artists to call consumers from nonexistent or difficult-to-trace numbers, sometimes even from abroad, with impunity. The result: an astronomical rise in robocalls. Over the past several years, the country has been treated to money-hungry hucksters impersonating the Internal Revenue Service, conmen fooling immigrants into thinking they face legal trouble, and tricksters hawking nonexistent time-shares. Tracking these criminals can be almost impossible, and even success stories have taken a dishearteningly long time to play out.
Thankfully, the Federal Communications Commission has stepped up its fight against unwanted calls, which prompt more than half of its annual consumer complaints. Changes include a rule authorizing phone companies to block scammers before they reach consumers by spotting invalid numbers and an initiative to develop an authentication system for caller ID - forcing those IRS impersonators to ‘fess up in real time.
But the success of these efforts hinges on technological innovation and the cooperation of phone companies, neither of which can be counted upon.
The FCC is right to make robocalls a priority, but persistence will be essential. The rule updates so far will not address the flood of non-spoof robocalls that are still prohibited; to confront those violations, the FCC should work with the Federal Trade Commission and Congress to craft a robust definition of an autodialer and consider creating a licensing system to aid with enforcement.
The agency should also mandate that companies crack down on robocalls, instead of only allowing them to act.