Pass the Shovel – The FCC and Private Sector Dig into Robo and Unwanted Calls

I recently spent the day at the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC participating in their working session on robocalling and Caller ID spoofing. Given our company-wide commitment to fighting the tidal wave of voice and SMS spam inundating shores of US consumers and businesses, it was time well spent.

Participants ranged from stakeholders we know well like Scott Mullen of Bandwidth and Alex Bobotek of AT&T to some of our telecomm partners like Jim Dalton of TransNexus. As always, I learned a lot.

How big is the problem? Big, really BIG!
The FCC kicked off the day with some frightening numbers on the growth of unwanted calls.

  • 300,000+ complaints were received by the FTC this year about the Do Not Call (DNC) registry and robocalling.
  • 114,000 consumer complaints were submitted to the FCC on unwanted calls in the first 8 months of the year, which is more than all other complaints of any type.
  • The FTC believes the system is failing and that violators have found too many ways around it, despite that nearly 250m numbers are registered on the DNC registry.
  • $350+ million are lost in call scams every year, as estimated by the ConsumerUnion. Although, others believe that number runs into the billions every year.

We all know from our own mobile phone experiences that the problem is large and getting worse. Whitepages consumer protection apps MrNumber and Whitepages CallerID collectively receive more than 1 million manual reports per month. We see a lot more than the FCC and FTC, let alone the tens of millions of bad calls we see every month. The first step to a solution is admitting there is a problem and the FCC made progress there.

What types of unwanted calls and fraud is occurring?
We all hear about these schemes one-off, but when the communications industry gets together, it’s a long and sad list. Some of the most notable I heard were:

  • IRS Scam: It is still going strong, with the FTC receiving 3,000 complaints so far this year.
  • Grandparents Scam: A grandparent receives a call from someone claiming to be their grandchild stuck in Mexico or Canada, and they need money wired to them “without telling Mom or Dad that I’m in this jam.”
  • Reflection Spoofing: This is an AT&T term for a particular scam where the number spoofed is your own, so when you see your own number on your handset, you want to answer and see who is behind it.
  • 800 Traffic Pumping: Bandwidth mentioned this one specifically, as did a number of the gateway providers like Vonage and AT&T. At Whitepages Pro, we have developed an industry-leading, real-time solution to 80% of 800 Traffic Pumping calls; recently deployed to our first customers, but the scam is going strong.

How are the FCC and FTC responding?
Both the FCC and FTC are aggressively engaging this problem. It’s great to see for all of us with a dog in the fight. Some recent examples:

  • In June 2015, the FCC ruled that carriers can legally block unwanted calls. This is a big breakthrough, enabling the entire ecosystem from carriers and VOIP providers to the smallest CLECs to protect their customers… if they have good data on unwanted calls. Our goal is to provide the very best call reputation data to the industry with our Whitepages Pro’s Phone Reputation API.
  • The FTC is litigating against DISH right now, with the case going to court in the next six months. It will be a bellweather case in terms of industry enforcement.
  • The FTC Robocall Challenge, which in the past few years awarded 4 prizes of $50,000 for the best new solutions to unwanted calls, is starting to see those solutions in the marketplace. One the winners was Jan Volzke, founder of Numbercop, which we are proud to say was acquired by Whitepages earlier this year.
  • The FTC is also prosecuting the case against Caribbean Cruise Lines, which allegedly caused billions of dollars of scam call losses.

What is coming on the unwanted call front?
One major point from Lois Greisman of the FTC was that the industry response has not been as strong as the problem. I told her that business models for consumer protection are tough to come by. So engagement of new businesses in this market has been slow.

Interestingly, Whitepages was the only data or software vendor I could find at the event which offers both consumer-facing unwanted call protection mobile apps as well as business solutions via Whitepages Pro’s API solutions. We have the business model and are in it for the long haul to fight this massive problem. We’re thrilled to see a federal push to raise awareness and participate in this shared challenge.



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