“Don’t hang up, this is not a sales call ….”
Yes, we’ve all been there – suckered into responding to the time-wasting aggravation of robocalls, particularly the spoofing ones that disguise their origins to make you think it’s coming from someone in your own community.
So we were ready to stand up and cheer last week when we read that the Federal Trade Commission had cracked down on robocallers and had banned four of them from doing more telemarketing scams with automatic phone dialing and levied heavy fines. One of the scams, under the name Veterans for America, tried to swindle people into donating cars and boats to help unnamed veterans charities. In reality, the donated items were run by a man who just sold the items collected, according to news reports.
Our cheers over the FTC crackdown were short-lived, however. The same week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission have a lackluster record when it comes to enforcement actions.
When it comes to collecting fines, the two federal agencies have all the ferocity of a Gummy Bear.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, the FCC has issued $208.4 million in fines against robocallers in the past three years. But since the agency has no authority to enforce penalties and has to turn them over to the Justice Department, the collection on those fines has reached the paltry amount of $6,790.
Similarly, the FTC has issued $1.5 billion in fines since 2004, the newspaper reported. It has collected $121 million of that money.
“The dearth of financial penalties collected by the U.S. government for violations of telemarketing and auto-dialing rules shows the limits the sister regulators (FCC and FTC) face in putting a stop to illegal robocalls,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “It also shows why the threat of large fines can fail to deter bad actors.”
The newspaper said fines can be a deterrent on legitimate companies that have assets in the U.S., but are less effective against scammers and overseas robocallers.
With that kind of toothlessness in enforcement, it’s small wonder that robocalling has been a growth industry. A report by YouMail, a company that makes robocall blocking software, said there were almost 48 billion fake phone calls last year – up from 30 billion in 2017. That’s an increase of 60 percent.
We would think that calls for better enforcement against that onslaught might get a friendly ear from President Donald Trump. We read earlier this year that a robocall operation impersonating Trump’s campaign – complete with a Trump voiceover asking for help defending the nation’s southern borders – had raised more than $100,000. The Trump campaign said it is not affiliated with the political action committee making the calls and the Federal Election Commission says the PAC hasn’t spent any money in this election cycle.
According to news reports, the operator of two PACs was active in the 2016 election cycle with fundraising efforts that “backed” the president as well as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. A CNN report said nearly all the money donated to those groups went to paying for radio ads and calls that solicited more donations – and to the operator who paid himself more than $300,000 in salary. The groups did not donate to any actual candidates.
Despite such egregious scamming, the FCC so far has just relied on jawboning carriers to adopt stronger anti-robocall technologies – and not getting serious about enforcement. Many phone carriers do have robocall-blocking apps that they are willing to sell to you for $3 to $5 a month. And there is other software like Nomorobo that are available, as well as the federal Do Not Call list. But some of those options cost consumers money and their effectiveness is not always 100 percent.
What is needed is enforcement action by the FTC and FCC with more teeth to put robocallers on permanent hold.
Just do it. Don’t call us until you do.