Trying to eliminate robocalls is roughly akin to eliminating mosquitoes – a worthy goal but one that's hard to realize. The Federal Communications Commission has been trying to deal with the illegal and annoying calls for years, with limited success. Now it's trying to really get tough.
To put it plainly, the commission plans to make it harder to get a phone number. Currently, just about anyone can give themselves any number they want, enabling scam artists of all kinds to show up in your Caller ID as though they were just down the street, even though they may be halfway around the globe.
The FCC has imposed all kinds of regulations intended to make it harder for tricksters who "spoof" phone numbers or display misleading Caller ID information to avoid detection. Now it's trying to go a step further, to swat the mosquitoes before they land on your arm, so to speak.
"If you want to stop robocalls, you need to look far and wide," said Acting FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel after the commission took up the matter last week. "You need to identify every policy and every practice that makes it possible for these nuisance calls to get through. That’s what we do here."
The villainous VoIP
The villain in all this is VoIP, a technology that was supposed to increase competition and make telecommunications services easier to use. It's done that, all right. It's increased competition among thriving con artists of all stripes by making it easier for them to deceive consumers.
VoIP is short for Voice over Internet Protocol – placing phone calls over the internet, to put it plainly. As we all know from using Facetime, Google Hangouts (or whatever it's now called) and other computer apps, it's pretty simple to place video and voice calls from one computer to another.
Thanks to VoIP, it's also pretty easy to place calls to telephones via the internet, if you know how to do it and have some cheap off-the-shelf equipment. Congress created the problem as part of the Telecommuncations Act of 1996 when it was delirious with one of its attacks of deregulation fever. The FCC made it a bit easier six years ago, when it adopted new rules that let VoIP providers get telephone numbers directly instead of going through an actual telephone company (remember those?).
"This provided real benefits, like greater competition," Rosenworcel said in a statement released Friday. "But this process needs more oversight. Because those picking up these numbers should not be in the business of facilitating robocalls, which is all too easy to do with VoIP technology."
"Guardrails" against robocalls
So now the FCC is proposing "new guardrails," as Rosenworcel put it. Specifically, it plans to make VoIP providers certify that they will not "assist or facilitate illegal robocalls or spoofing and that they take affirmative steps to stop the origination, termination, and transmission of these calls."
Providers will also be required to register in the FCC's Robocall Mitigation Database. The commission is seeking public comment on the proposals before adopting them.
Can you stop robocalls?
You can find tons of information about blocking, avoiding and otherwise eliminating robocalls but a lot of the suggestions are, like the FCC's actions, well-meaning but not necessarily a lot of help in any specific situation.
One of the better guides we've found comes from CTIA, the trade organization for the wireless telecom industry.
Here are some of CTIA's tips, which deal mostly with wireless devices. You can find more on their website.
Check out your provider’s tool’s and services: The major wireless providers offer various tools and solutions that you can engage or may be built into your device to block or flag calls.
- AT&T Call Protect
- Verizon Call Filter
- T-Mobile Scam ID, Scam Block, Name ID
- U.S. Cellular Call Guardian
Download and activate robocall blocking apps: Third parties offer additional apps to help you identify and block unwanted robocalls. Media outlets regularly recommend and review apps—check out the following articles to learn more.
- “In 2019 Here’s How To Stop And Block Robocalls, Spam, And Unknown Calls On iPhone, Android,” Forbes
- “How to stop robocalls, block numbers on your iPhone, Android and even landline,” USA Today
- For more apps, check out our lists for Android, BlackBerry, iOS (Apple) and Windows.
Take extra precautions with unknown callers: Don’t engage with robocallers. Don’t give out personally identifiable information or send money to a third party without verifying the authenticity of the caller. You can double check the authenticity of caller by looking up their phone number on their website, or in a phone book and calling them directly.
Add your number to the Do-Not-Call Registry: Add your wireless devices and/or landline numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry, which prohibits telemarketers from calling your registered numbers.
Report robocalls and spam text messages:
- File a complaint online with the FTC or FCC. Alternatively, call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP or the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC.
- Forward SPAM text messages to 7726 (or SPAM). This free text exchange with your wireless provider will report the SPAM number, and you will receive a response thanking you for reporting it.