There is a scene in the 1994 hit comedy “Dumb and Dumber” where Jim Carrey famously asks a hitchhiker, “Do you want to hear the most annoying sound in the world.” He then follows up with a noise that has been described as “a mixture of a car suddenly braking and a Wookie howling.”
The explosion in artificial or prerecorded calls—“robocalls,” as they’re known—has led many Americans to feel like they are re-living this scene again and again, day after day. Whether it’s while eating dinner, watching your favorite show, or enjoying quiet time reading, we’re all repeatedly being interrupted by the ring of pre-recorded calls at what always seems to be the worst possible moment.
Everyone believes that artificial or prerecorded calls—“robocalls,” as they’re known—are awful. They’re intrusive. They’re unwanted. And American consumers received an estimated 29 billion of them in 2016. That’s about 230 calls for every U.S. household. Former Sen. Fritz Hollings was right; robocalls are “the scourge of civilization.”
Many robocalls are also scams. For example, outlaw operators are posing as IRS agents and attempting to blackmail honest, hardworking Americans, particularly vulnerable groups like the elderly. Call recipients are told that if they don’t agree to send money, law enforcement will come after them. The Treasury Department is aware of more than 10,000 victims of these con-jobs, with losses exceeding $54 million since October 2013.
What’s really frustrating about these calls is that it appeared at one time that the federal government’s “Do Not Call” list was addressing the issue. But despite that list and other rules on the books prohibiting unwanted calls, scofflaws are finding creative ways to badger consumers without being caught.
One major issue—and the problem at the heart of the IRS scam—is caller ID spoofing. Through spoofing, someone calling from one number (say, 555-1212) changes the caller ID information to make it appear as though he is calling from a different number (say, 867-5309). Scammers and spammers use spoofing to disguise their identity, to trick consumers into answering unwanted calls (for instance, by picking a local area code), and to hide from authorities. And carriers can’t do much to stop this given the Federal Communications Commission’s current rules, which generally prohibit call-blocking in order to ensure that all calls get completed.
Americans want these unwanted intrusions to end. Robocalls and telemarketing calls are the number one source of consumer complaints that the FCC receives.
But there’s good news: The FCC is committed to solving this problem. Today, we’ll vote on a proposal to give phone companies greater leeway to block spoofed robocalls. Specifically, they would be able to block calls that appear to be from phone numbers that are invalid or not in use (as determined by a pre-existing database that keeps track of all phone numbers). Think of this as a “Do Not Originate” list—one that applies to scammers placing calls, and a much-needed bookend to the “Do Not Call” list.
There is no reason why any legitimate caller should be spoofing an unassigned or invalid number. And providers shouldn’t be sued for doing the right thing by blocking illegitimate spoofing. The FCC’s proposed action would go a long way toward making sure that robocallers won’t be able to use this strategy to evade the law.
This is a change that the industry itself asked for through its Robocall Strike Force, which is chaired by AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson and comprised of 33 major carriers and device makers, including Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Apple, Microsoft and others. So we’re confident that they will take advantage of this new policy in order to protect their customers. That’s good news because a test of this concept, conducted by Strike Force members with the FCC’s permission, reduced IRS scam calls by about 90 percent in the third quarter of 2016.
Going forward, the FCC will keep working with companies and consumer groups to eliminate illegal and unwanted calls. We must also make it easier for consumers to tell us about the robocalls they receive and take aggressive action against unscrupulous telemarketers and known robocallers.
Given the torrent of robocalls, many Americans probably feel that the odds of getting relief are on par with Lauren Holly's declaration to Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber that there's a one-in-a-million that they'll get together. But with this week’s action by the FCC, we're telling U.S. consumers there's more than just a chance things will get better. We're saying long-overdue help in the fight against robocalls is finally on the way.
Ajit Pai is the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. President Trump designated him to the position in January 2017. He previously served as commissioner at the FCC with an appointment from then-President Obama, and received unanimous confirmation from the United States Senate in May 2012.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.