FCC gets serious about robocalls

Published Jul 15, 2017 at 4:00pm

Anyone in the United States who has been disturbed by a robocall during dinner might feel a certain schadenfreude when they hear that a scam artist who conducted those calls on a shocking scale faces a $120 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission.

Here’s hoping this is only the FCC’s first step in shutting down a practice that preys on consumers and causes plenty of annoyance along the way. A $120 million fine may sound steep, but it comes out to just more than a dollar for each of the 96,758,223 illegal calls the FCC estimates Adrian Abramovich made over the course of three months.

Americans may have received approximately 7.2 billion calls in the same period of time. That is 2.4 billion per month and almost 1,000 per second. The unprecedented scale of Abramovich’s alleged operation provoked the FCC to label him “public enemy number one” and to spend more than a year issuing subpoena after subpoena to service carriers to pin him down.

But he is allegedly one of many mass robocallers who harness advanced technology to spoof telephone numbers so that they look legitimate -- and then, in many cases, use those calls to defraud consumers, especially the elderly, by, say, marketing vacation timeshares (as Abramovich is said to have done) or impersonating the Internal Revenue Service.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has put robocalls at the top of his agenda, and in March, the agency announced it would formulate a rule to counteract the scourge. Auto-dialing a cellphone without express consent is already illegal; the trouble is stopping the people who do it anyway. At the heart of the FCC’s proposal is the creation of a list of fraudulent numbers that carriers may choose to block from reaching any of their clients. The FCC also hopes to offer tools to consumers that will help them do their own filtering.

That leaves some problems unsolved. Many robocalls come from “unknown” numbers or are marked with “no caller ID,” but allowing carriers or consumers to block those numbers could box out callers who go unidentified for legitimate reasons, such as law enforcement.

Since Pai’s ascension to commission chair, the FCC has given Congress, the communications industry and those they serve plenty to fight over. But keeping people like Abramovich off the line is one thing everyone -- except perhaps those pesky IRS impersonators -- should be able to agree on.