Ringing in Our Fears

One year after new law, robocalls are down and compliance is up, but skyrocketing robotexts are the latest problem

Riley Williams II thought the year-old federal law that was supposed to reduce scam robocalls was working alright. For the last year, the Oklahoma pharmacist had been getting only four or five calls a week on his cell phone marked as “scam likely.” He never answered them. They often didn’t leave messages. 

But in the last month, the volume has doubled or tripled, to 10 to 15 robocalls per week. And they’re leaving messages: It’s someone asking whether he wants to sell his house (or more likely defraud him). His bank account needs attention. (Yeah, sure.) Some of the messages are in Chinese, which he doesn’t speak.

Williams has also seen a similar increase in robotexts, which aren’t directly covered by the federal law that took effect on June 30, 2021.

The calls and texts are annoying. They’re time-suckers. He wants them to stop. 

Don’t we all.

Meanwhile, Bill Rucki of Ohio has enjoyed more consistent improvement. The retired electrical engineer used to get 10 to 20 spam robocalls a day on his cellphone last year and about the same volume on his home phone. Now he’s down to one or two a day on his cell and a half-dozen on his landline. “It’s been in the last six months that I really noticed it,” he says happily.

While even one unwanted call is bad, there indeed is some good news in this years-long effort by regulators and lawmakers to fight one of American consumers’ biggest problems:

  • The number of voice providers that have installed the preferred robocall-blocking technology has nearly quadrupled since last year, according to U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s new analysis of the Federal Communications Commission’s robocall database. 

  • Scam robocalls nationwide have declined by about 47 percent since last June, according to YouMail, one of the largest robocall- and robotext-blocking companies in the United States.

  • More cellphone and home phone companies are filtering calls and offering customers new services such as flagging suspicious calls to give the receiver the choice of answering, sending them to voicemail or blocking them.

  • Regulators are requiring phone companies that serve as “gateway” providers – which often funnel scam calls from overseas – to do more to block them.

  • Regulators are requiring smaller phone providers, which didn’t have to follow the robocall technology rules last year, to now comply just like large companies. All 50 attorneys general last year pushed the FCC to crack down on small companies, which originally had exemptions until June 2023, because scam callers were leveraging the income-hungry small providers to bypass technology installed by large companies.

  • The FCC has started partnering with state attorneys general on robocall investigations, sharing information and using the criminal enforcement powers of states, which often can respond more nimbly. Just two weeks ago, the FCC and the Ohio attorney general worked together to go after one robocall operation that they allege is responsible for 8 billion illegal robocalls since 2018, most about auto warranties.
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken enforcement actions against two companies on grounds they didn’t install the required Caller ID technology last year. It’s only two out of hundreds who may not be complying, but it’s a step.

 

Here’s a recording of a tax debt robocall that is common right now. (Courtesy of Nomorobo.)

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Meanwhile, if you have either a cellphone or home phone, there’s bad news too. 

  • Scam robocalls have declined by many measures, but they should have decreased more.

  • Robotexts have increased twelvefold in the past year, from about 1 billion to 12 billion per month, according to RoboKiller. Con artists and identity thieves are taking advantage of loopholes in the law and the fact that consumers may have difficulty distinguishing a genuine text from a fake one, according to YouMail.

  • The chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) submitted a proposal in October 2021 to pass rules to attack robotexts. However, the full FCC hasn’t yet acted on it.

  • Nearly one-fourth of phone companies have older equipment on at least part of their systems that they tell the FCC keeps them from installing the industry-standard robocall-detecting technology. 

Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, told PIRG the new law has been “a speed bump” for robocalls, especially scam calls. “But those are coming back,” he said.

In the meantime, 80 percent of cellphone owners say they typically don’t answer calls from an unrecognized phone number, according to Pew Research Center. While inconvenient and annoying, until the FCC cracks down on robocalls further, that may be the best way to avoid becoming one of the millions of people ripped off every year by a scam call.

 

PHONE COMPANY COMPLIANCE HAS SOARED

A year ago, we hit an important milestone. June 30, 2021 was the deadline for most companies to install robocall-fighting technology and register on the FCC’s public Robocall Mitigation Database and tell the FCC where they stand with Caller ID verification. Then there was a 90-day grace period until Sept. 28, 2021, or else their calls could be blocked.

Compliance as of September was unimpressive. Only 536 phone companies – 17 percent of those that didn’t claim exemption – told the FCC they’d completely implemented the STIR/SHAKEN Caller ID technology, according to our analysis last year.

Now, as of June 30, 2022, that number has nearly quadrupled, to 1,932 companies. That’s nearly 2,000 phone companies nationwide that tell the FCC they’ve installed technology that verifies whether the calls are being spoofed.

Meanwhile, 817 companies said they’d partially implemented the technology last September. That has nearly doubled to 1,518 companies now.

Partial implementation generally means a company hasn’t installed STIR/SHAKEN on the non-Internet-Protocol part of their networks. It’s actually impossible for a company to have the STIR/SHAKEN technology on its non-IP lines, the FCC says. Instead, the companies are expected to figure out another way to squash illegal robocalls for now and tell the FCC what that plan is. 

Here are the full results of our analysis of the FCC database this month:

  • 7,514 phone providers registered.

  • 6,512 didn’t claim exemption from anti-robocall technology.

Of those not claiming exemption:

  • 1,932 (29.7%) have completed the industry-standard STIR/SHAKEN technology, up from 536 companies last year.

  • 1,518 (23.3%) have partially completed the industry-standard STIR/SHAKEN technology, up from 817 companies last year.

  • 3,062 (47%) haven’t implemented STIR/SHAKEN but are using their own robocall mitigation system. That compares with 1,710 companies last year. The increase reflects companies that didn’t report their status last year.

The FCC says it’s pleased with what it categorizes as “widespread compliance” with both installation of Caller ID technology and registering with the database.

Also encouraging: The number of companies that have actually registered with the database has more than doubled, from 3,659 in September to 7,514 this month. Yes, they were supposed to do this last year. But they didn’t before. Now, they have, likely for a variety of reasons. 

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It’s curious, though, that the FCC had threatened last year to block phone calls from companies that hadn’t at least registered on the database, regardless whether they’d installed robocall-fighting technology.

Yet not a single company has been prohibited from making phone calls for not registering with the database, according to an FCC spokesman. The FCC declined to comment on the reason no companies have been blocked from processing calls.

Quilici of YouMail, said in an interview that he’s not surprised unwanted robocalls haven’t decreased more. Yes, the vast majority of major cell phone and VoIP (voice over internet protocol) providers say they’re using STIR/SHAKEN or some other new technology to fight illegal robocalls. But the companies using their own system may be using inferior technology, Quilici said. 

“An awful lot – 40 to 50 percent of all calls – still don’t go through STIR/SHAKEN,” he said. That likely will decrease as traffic gets blocked, either blocked because the company hasn’t registered with the FCC or blocked because the company used to be exempt but now it’s not, he said.

While the FCC hasn’t outright blocked any companies yet, it has, however, sent quite a few cease and desist letters, 18 to be exact, as of March 2022, to companies the FCC believes are transmitting illegal robocalls. The letters demand that the companies stop allowing the robocalls immediately and tell the FCC what they’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

 

VIEW THE FULL REPORT

 

FOUR REASONS TO BE ENCOURAGED

The hope has been that between the FCC’s crackdown, phone companies’ blocking and filtering and rising consumer awareness, con artists would find robocalls increasingly unproductive and stop making them. 

That of course hasn’t happened yet. But there are four big reasons to be encouraged.

First, scam robocalls did decline significantly after more phone companies started installing the robocall-fighting technology. In June 2021, before the law took effect, the nation saw 2.1 billion scam robocalls, according to YouMail. In May of this year, scam robocalls declined to 1.12 billion. That’s a decrease of 47 percent.

Those figures don’t include what are classified as telemarketing calls. These telemarketing calls could also be illegal if the callers don’t have permission to call and some could be scams. Telemarketing calls jumped from 690 million in June 2021 to 830 million in May 2022, an increase of 20 percent, according to YouMail.

Second, the FCC has started partnering with state attorneys general to help both the FCC and the states to go after robocallers better. To date, the FCC has signed agreements with 36 states and the District of Columbia.

The FCC says it will be able to more easily pursue investigations like one last year that led to the largest fine in FCC history. That involved working with eight state attorneys general. The FCC fined health insurance telemarketers $225 million for making about 1 billion calls, many illegally spoofed, in violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act.The states are also filing suit seeking damages and a permanent injunction against the telemarketer, the FCC said. The calls aimed to sell short-term, limited-duration health insurance plans and falsely claimed to offer plans from companies like Cigna and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The partnerships with the states are already helping, the FCC says. This big case was announced two weeks ago. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court naming 22 defendants who are alleged to be part of an operation that made 8 billion illegal auto warranty robocalls since 2018. At the same time, the FCC issued cease and desist letters to eight phone companies and issued a notice to all U.S.-based voice providers to stop transmitting any calls from this operation. Violators could be put out of business by the FCC.

Many of us have likely received an auto warranty robocall similar to the ones targeted in this case. Some of the robocalls, according to the FCC, contained this message:

“We’ve been trying to reach you concerning your car’s extended warranty.  You should have received something in the mail about your car’s extended warranty.  Since we have not gotten a response, we are giving you a final courtesy call before we close out your file.  Press 2 to be removed and put on our Do-Not-Call list.  Press 1 to speak with someone about extending or reinstating your car’s warranty.  Again, press 1 to speak with a warranty specialist.  (Pause) Or call our 800 number at 833-304-1447.”  

States with partnerships with FCC robocall investigators:

  • Alaska

  • Arizona

  • Arkansas

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Connecticut

  • Florida

  • Idaho

  • Indiana

  • Iowa

  • Kansas

  • Kentucky

  • Louisiana

  • Maine

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Minnesota

  • Mississippi

  • Missouri

  • Nevada

  • New Hampshire

  • New Jersey

  • New York

  • North Carolina

  • North Dakota

  • Ohio

  • Oregon

  • Pennsylvania

  • South Carolina

  • Tennessee

  • Texas

  • Vermont

  • Virginia

  • Washington

  • West Virginia

  • Wyoming

  • District of Columbia

 

Third, the FCC in May approved new rules aimed at stopping illegal robocalls that originate overseas. U.S. lawmakers and regulators can’t go after those robocallers but they can go after U.S. companies that allow the calls to use their lines. The FCC calls them “gateway providers,” which serve as “on-ramps for international call traffic.” 

They’re also on-ramps for some of the worst scam calls. The fraudulent calls we get that pose as the Social Security Administration (we’re going to lose our benefits) or the Internal Revenue Service (we’re behind on our taxes) or other government offices “almost always are coming from overseas,” according to USTelecom, the industry trade association for cell phone, internet, cable and voice services.

The new rules demand that gateway providers comply with STIR/SHAKEN Caller ID requirements and take additional steps to verify the identities of providers originating the calls from overseas. 

This is huge and long overdue, Foss of Nomorobo told PIRG. “This is the biggest win. Cutting off gateway carriers is one of the most important things that we can do. This is currently the weakest link in the telecom chain but needs to be the strongest.”

Unfortunately, the gateway provider rules haven’t taken effect yet. That will happen 60 days after they’re published in the Federal Register. FCC officials said they don’t yet know when that will be. 

In addition, the FCC said it will explore cracking down on all intermediate providers in the United States, not just the gateway providers that transmit international calls. As of July 1, more than 13 percent of phone providers that registered with the FCC robocall mitigation database claimed they’re exempt from the STIR/SHAKEN law. Of the 7,514 companies that had registered, 1,002 claimed compliance wasn’t applicable. Of those, 994 said compliance wasn’t applicable because they’re intermediate providers

Fourth, the law that took effect on June 30, 2021, originally exempted smaller voice providers, defined as those with fewer than 100,000 customers. Their deadline to comply with robocall-prevention technology was supposed to be June 2023. 

But after STIR/SHAKEN took effect last year, illegal robocall rings flocked to smaller providers, according to the FCC and a letter signed by all 50 attorneys general. “These small phone companies are suspected of facilitating large numbers of illegal robocalls,” the FCC said in a release.

Now, most small providers must install Caller ID verification technology as of last month, June 30, 2022, on the internet-based parts of their networks. This doesn’t yet apply to companies using, for example, old-fashioned copper-wire lines, which you often find in rural areas.

 
THE NEW NIGHTMARE – ROBOTEXTS

Robotexts are the next generation of scams. They’ve existed for several years but have been skyrocketing recently as regulators and phone companies fight back against the scam calls. 

Scam robotexts are pretty much the same as scam robocalls: They’re sent by the thousands or millions at a time. They try to hide their identity in order to convince you to click on a link or call a phone number. Such a misstep could lead to you getting defrauded, compromising personal information, buying something you didn’t want or getting some kind of virus on your device.

Robotexts are different from robocalls in a few ways – first that they’re not specifically covered by the law aimed at spoofed robocalls. That’s what led Rosenworcel last October to propose new rules prohibiting robotexts

“We’ve seen a rise in scammers trying to take advantage of our trust of text messages by sending bogus robotexts that try to trick consumers to share sensitive information or click on malicious links,” she said in a statement. 

And have we ever seen a surge. Scam robotexts have increased twelvefold in the past year, from about 1 billion to 12 billion per month, according to RoboKiller, as con artists and identity thieves take advantage of loopholes in the law and the difficulty consumers may have distinguishing a genuine text from a fake one. Con artists also gravitate to scam texts in part because consumers increasingly communicate via text, according to YouMail.


Health-related and insurance-related robocalls were the third most common reported to the FCC in 2021. Here’s a recording of one health-related robocall that is common right now. (Courtesy of Nomorobo.)

 

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RECOMMENDATIONS

We continue to be threatened and attacked by our own belongings – our phones. Thieves take advantage of technology and the vulnerability we all have at times to steal our information, our money or, at the very least, our time that we’ll never get back. We’d like to not be stressed when our phone rings or when we miss an important call we were afraid to answer.

Illegal robocalls and robotexts likely will never go away. But they’ll continue to plague us as long as enforcement is lax, phone companies don’t try harder and enough consumers fall for scams to make it worthwhile for thieves. According to one study, roughly one in four adults was the victim of a phone scam in some way last year. Even if that’s high, just consider that a con artist needs only one or two victims a day to make it worth it.

Here are some of the strategies that could help reduce robocalls and robotexts:

  • The FCC needs to crack down more on phone providers that flout the law. Congress passed a law that said companies must install robocall-fighting technology on the digital and internet parts of their networks by June 30, 2021. And all voice providers were expected to register their robocall technology status with the FCC as of Sept. 28, 2021.
    There’s a ton of non-compliance. The FCC could block offenders from being allowed to transmit calls, basically putting them out of business. It hasn’t yet blocked a single company from transmitting calls. That needs to change.

  • The FCC in 2020 figured out a little late that companies that transmit calls from international robocall rings are a problem. But it’s passed new rules to address “gateway” providers that should take effect soon. It needs to enforce those rules.

  • Likewise, the FCC in 2020 underestimated how much robocall rings would gravitate to small phone companies, which were supposed to be exempt from robocall technology rules until June 2023. It’s great the FCC moved the compliance deadline up to June 2022; now it needs to enforce it. 

  • The public and government officials need more information about the entities that are making and allowing illegal robocalls. There’s an Industry Traceback Group (ITG) that tracks thousands of “tracebacks” each year to discover where illegal calls originate and who along the way allowed the calls on their lines. The information is kept mostly private and released on a limited basis to regulators.

    As recommended in June by U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and 11 other senators, this information about who is allowing illegal robocalls should be released publicly to help consumers, victims and law enforcement hold offenders accountable. The FCC needs to make this happen. Bi-partisan legislation introduced in December by Sens. John Thune and Edward Markey – authors of the TRACED Act – would protect the ITG and phone companies from liability if they share information about illegal calls. The bill is in committee.

  • Most phone companies need to do more to protect their customers. Companies are allowed to block suspected scam or spoof calls from ever reaching consumers, as long as they give their customers a chance to opt back in. Companies are also allowed to label calls as possible scams or spam. And they’re allowed to display a checkmark or V next to a phone number, indicating the call is coming from the number displayed. Too few companies do these things for their customers.

  • Companies also can give customers the power to block suspicious calls or calls with no Caller ID if they want. Many companies don’t offer this or, if they do, they don’t make their customers aware of the service. 

  • The FCC needs to pass proposed rules to combat robotexts, requiring phone companies to block obviously illegal text messages. 

  • We all need to remain vigilant and do whatever we can to help educate our friends and loved ones about the dangers of illegal robocalls and robotexts. 

 

 

18 TIPS TO REDUCE ROBOCALLS AND PROTECT YOURSELF FROM SCAMS — Check out our updated guide 

HOW TO REPORT ROBOCALLERS IN ALL 50 STATES – A list of links, emails and phone numbers for every state


VIEW THE FULL REPORT

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Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, PIRG

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers' health, safety and financial security. Prior to her current role, she worked as a journalist and columnist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio's largest daily newspaper. She is the recipient of dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, Best Business Writer in Ohio, and National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Among the accomplishments she’s most proud of is receiving a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected at least 15 million customers nationwide. Her work caused Verizon to reach an $80 million settlement with the FCC, the largest ever imposed at that time. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons and a dog. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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