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We're 90 per cent sure the FCC's robocall kill plan won't have the slightest impact

Dumb and dumber, or the lightest of light touches?

By Kieren McCarthy, 23 Mar 2017

The number-one complaint to US comms watchdog the FCC right now is about robocalls – a remarkable 200,000 complaints from consumers last year alone.

It's for good reason: there are, according to FCC chair Ajit Pai, 2.4 billion robocalls made per month – 230 a year for every household in the US.

But Pai is determined to do something about it – at least according to an op-ed he penned for The Hill that was published ahead of a vote later this week, where the FCC will take its first steps in combating the scourge.

The only problem is that the FCC plan as outlined will have almost no impact on robocalls beyond a possible respite for a few weeks.

FCC rules largely prohibit telephone companies from blocking phone calls due to the philosophy that calls should be completed whenever possible. Under the proposal that the FCC will vote on this week, the companies will be given broad authority to block tens of millions of phone numbers – all of which do not currently exist.

The reason for the rocketing problem of robocalls is that companies – often scammers – use spoofing technology so that a call looks like it is coming from a different telephone number.

At the moment, they typically use telephone numbers that are not in use or do not currently exist – probably because it reduces the size of the headache for them (angry consumers calling back or blocking innocent people at real numbers has the potential to create a lot of noise). Therefore, by blocking those numbers, you kill off a big part of the problem.

The only good news is...

Pai says this approach is "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."

That is a little misleading however. The taskforce in fact used, according to its own report [PDF], "a small set of numbers to gauge scammer behavior and reaction." Those numbers were specifically chosen because they had been identified by consumers as being used repeatedly by a particular group of scammers.

The companies blocked those numbers and found "a 90 per cent reduction in IRS scam call complaints in the last two months."

What we can tell from that is that the scammers either didn't notice they were being blocked or didn't change their spoofing software to use new numbers within two months. It's a start but it is far, far away from a solution to billions of robocalls.

The reality is that as soon as telephone companies start blocking numbers that don't exist, robocall companies will just shift their spoofing to existing numbers. Pai knows as much but disguises the fact in a slightly odd reference to the movie Dumb and Dumber.

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 US 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.

The FCC's vote won't even put this into effect: it is a vote to open a "notice of proposed rulemaking" about the plan and open the idea to public comment. It will be months before even this weak idea is approved – giving the scammers plenty of notice and lead-time to change their systems.

When it does arrive, the FCC solution will likely be as useful as a chocolate teapot.

The real solutions

So if this blocking system is, at best, a Band-Aid on a festering sore, what are the real solutions and why isn't the FCC and phone industry charging at them full speed?

According to Maureen Mahoney of the Consumers Union, who has been following the issue closely for some time, there is a broader set of tools that are effective, but it's a matter of the industry adopting them.

AT&T is testing out some new technology that will block spoofed calls – something that the company has said will be available in the last quarter of this year, according to Mahoney.

And then there is "Nomorobo" – a solution that was inspired by the FCC's $50,000 prize offer made back in 2012 – which looks at black and white lists and adds a Captcha service. If it's unsure the caller is real, it asks them to input a number sequence.

Mahoney notes that the FCC told phone companies back in 2015 that there was no legal impediment to them offering Nomorobo to their customers, and the Consumers Union made a public call last summer for companies to provide such blocking tools to consumers – preferably for free.

Amazingly, the phone companies have not taken them up on the offer.

Motivation – follow the...

So why are the phone companies dragging their feet? You won't believe this but the answer is money.

It costs phone companies money to install a blocking system right across their network, and they lose money generated by the billions of fake calls. Some phone companies have reportedly considered offering the service for an additional fee (Nomorobo charges $1.99 a month for its iOS app).

But they are wary about opening that door and having a regulator like the FCC telling them to make it free, or getting involved in an industry race where one company offers it for free to attract customers and effectively forces everyone to have to do likewise.

Will the FCC bring its regulatory powers to bear on the issue? Probably not. Pai has made great play since taking over as chair about how the FCC under him will be hands-off, or "light touch," as he likes to call it.

He has used this argument to justify killing off and shutting down many of the rules developed under his predecessor covering, in particular, net neutrality. It's going to be difficult for Pai to come down hard on phone companies for failing to block spoofed calls if he wants to maintain this philosophy.

Instead, what a "light touch" FCC looks like is one that puts out seemingly endless calls for public input on what should happen – even when everyone knows what needs to happen and why it isn't happening.

As well as "seeking input" on the plan to block fake numbers, the FCC also wants to know people's ideas about "how to address spoofed calls from international locations" and it is "asking how to create a safe harbor for providers from FCC call completion rules when they rely on objective criteria to identify and block calls that are highly likely to be fraudulent, illegal, or spoofed robocalls."

Back in October, when the industry-led Robocall Strike Force held its second meeting, then-FCC chair Tom Wheeler lambasted it for going too slowly in finding solutions. He pushed for another meeting in six months where he wanted to hear some real answers.

This week, it is six months later. There's no meeting of the strike force, but we do have an op-ed from the FCC chair and a proposal to ask what people think about a solution that won't work.

You don't get much more light touch than that. ®

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