Last week a group of six U.S. Senators introduced the ROBOCOP Act, to require phone companies to offer their customers free robocall blocking technology. Several of the recommendations could use some fleshing out.

The six Democrats (Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR)) named the bill ROBOCOP as a moniker for “Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones).

The ROBOCOP Act:

  • Directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require telecom companies to verify that caller ID is accurate.
  • Provides an exception for consumers with legitimate need for altered caller ID, such as medical offices and domestic violence shelters.
  • Directs the FCC to require telecom companies to offer consumers optional free robocall-blocking technology.
  • The technology would not block public safety entities and calls that the consumer consents to receive (e.g., school closings).
  • Authorizes the FCC to create a nationwide unblocking system that will ensure consumers are in control of the calls and text messages they receive.
  • Gives consumers a private right of legal action against telecom companies that violate this statute.
  • Requires the FCC, in consultation with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to make a public report on whether the new rules have reduced unwanted calls.

This is one of a range of efforts being pursued by Congress and regulators in response to the fact that the National Do Not Call Registry – initially effective – is no longer capable of protecting consumers from overseas scammers who do not hesitate to break the law.

On March 28 insideARM published a recap of a joint policy forum held by the FCC and FTC, titled “Fighting the Scourge of Illegal Robocalls.” The forum featured prepared remarks from leaders of both federal agencies with jurisdiction over robocalls, including newly installed FCC Chief of Consumer and Governmental Affairs Patrick Webre, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, FTC Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, and several Commissioners from both agencies. All of them basically said the same thing: Illegal robocalls are awful, we get tons of complaints about them, and this issue is our top priority.

The substance of the Forum included a series of three panels including the regulators on the front lines of enforcement and rulemaking, representatives of the carrier industry and the calling industry, and consumer advocates.

One of the takeaways from that forum was that the FTC has learned that there are “kingpins” who seem to lord over the bulk of the schemes and those kingpins tend to be located in the United States. Denise Beamer, Senior Assistant Attorney General for the Florida Office of the Attorney General, said “[The kingpins] are known, they are sophisticated, and they are connectors…Going after them really is a deterrent.”

On the same day the ROBOCOP bill was introduced, an alleged ‘robocall’ mastermind appeared under subpoena before the Senate Commerce Committee. The Federal Communications Commission (FTC) has accused Adrian Abramovich of making 96 million robocalls during a three-month period in 2016 and has proposed a $120 million fine. He said to the committee, “I am not the kingpin of robocalling that is alleged.” Abramovich claimed his activities constitute legitimate telemarketing. The FCC claims his company appeared to offer deals from legitimate companies like TripAdvisor and Expedia, but then transfer calls to foreign call centers often pushing timeshares. In response to some questions, Abramovich invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

insideARM Perspective

Something from the proposed ROBOCALL bill that immediately catches my eye is the requirement that the FCC require telecom companies to verify that caller ID is accurate. This is interesting. I am not an expert in this area, but I can say for sure that this is likely no easy task. I get calls all the time from legitimate known people/companies, yet their caller ID often makes no sense. When I ask, “did you know this is how you appear in caller ID?” people are generally surprised and have no idea how to address it. Interestingly, calls that I receive from staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) – or should I now say, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection – typically display as “Washington, D.C.”

I don’t know whether this has to do with errors in a central database, who purchases that data from the central database, how often the information is updated, settings on internal hardware or software, settings controlled by one or more carriers delivering the call, simple human error, or perhaps all of the above. As with many things in our complex interconnected world, ‘all of the above’ means that no one entity has control, and a solution requires motivation to cooperate.

Other aspects of the bill that I wonder about:

1) The technology would not block public safety entities and calls that the consumer consents to receive (e.g., school closings).

How would the technology know if I had consented to receive a communication? Would there be some kind of database of approved callers, like schools or local governments? What about other consented calls, like debt collection? Debt collection calls may not be ‘wanted’ or accepted in the same way we can all get behind school closings, but in a way, they are even more important, since there are any number of other ways to learn about school closings (website, local news station, etc.). A call from a debt collector may be the last stop before a lawsuit from a creditor, or a negative item on a credit report.

2) Authorizes the FCC to create a nationwide unblocking system that will ensure consumers are in control of the calls and text messages they receive.

Will this be a centralized nationwide system (like the caller ID information, or Do Not Call List)? Will we end up on the same situation we are in today? It will be interesting to see whether something like this could end up on a distributed blockchain.

3) Gives consumers a private right of legal action against telecom companies that violate this statute.

All I can say is, telecom companies – welcome to the world of debt collectors.

 


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