Expect MORE Robocalls Next Year, According to Late Night Show with John Oliver

Show host says FCC has taken a weak stance to protect consumer rights



Kindra Cooper
03/28/2019

Robocall

The first time you received an automated voicemail claiming the IRS was filing a lawsuit against you, you were probably spooked. When no summons letter materialized in your mailbox, you likely started to ignore those calls, or block the number altogether. Robocalls are so commonplace they trigger an instant hang-up reflex, and the Federal Communications Commission is doing nothing to stop what US Senator Fritz Hollings rightly dubbed “the scourge of civilization.”

In a recent segment on robocalling, late night show host John Oliver rained criticism on FCC chair Ajit Pai, whose weak stance against robocalling under the pressure of telemarketers and banks has left telecoms largely unchecked.

Consequently, robocalls are on the rise. Americans fielded 57 percent more robocalls in 2018, totaling nearly 50 billion calls. They are also the number one consumer complaint to the FCC, which receives 200,000 unwanted caller complaints per year, constituting 60 percent of all FCC complaints.

“Since becoming FCC chair, he has been reluctant to force telecoms to act. For instance, he could require them to offer free call blocking services or offer something called call authentication, which could significantly curtail spoofing,” Oliver said. “But he hasn’t done that, instead what he’s done is urge them to do it [...] Telecom companies aren’t really going to listen to you unless you force them to.”

On the contrary, one telco has done this on its own, likely recognizing a golden opportunity to be customer-centric where the FCC and other telcos continue to side with telemarketers and banks. Starting in March, Verizon is offering its call and spam screening services free of charge to all its wireless customers.

The service identifies spam callers and unknown numbers based on a continuously updated algorithm and Verizon’s database of over 300 million numbers blacklisted for spam or robocalling. Each time a call comes in, customers see a risk meter showing the level of spam risk.

However, Verizon admits in the press release that spoof identification is still a weak point, “because the spoofed robocalls typically start with Internet-based providers (often based outside the United States), and then pass through several other companies’ networks before reaching us.”

There’s a popular misconception that robocalls mostly originate from no-name companies or offshore call centers, but the top robocallers are Fortune 500s: Capital One, Comcast and Wells Fargo. Banks like these use robocalls to chase debts. One Florida woman sued Wells Fargo in 2015 after she received over 6000 calls over the course of four years after missing a mortgage payment. Records from January 2015 showed they were calling her over 20 times a day.  

In his segment, Oliver mused sarcastically about what the bank was getting out of calling a debtor 20 times in one day.

“This is actually great timing because while I couldn’t pay you 45 minutes ago, a small propeller plane full of un-laundered drug money just crashed into my den,” he joked, pretending to be the call recipient. “Thanks so much for the call, you ravenous ghouls!”

Oliver also pointed out that the National Do Not Call Registry doesn’t physically bar companies from contacting you; it just means they are legally obligated to check the list to see if your name is on it before they call you - something scammers don’t care to do. More dangerous is call spoofing, used by fraudsters to pose as someone you know or disguise their phone number to look like someone calling from your area.

As a customer contact professional, you’re likely wondering why companies would so blatantly flout not only consumer protection rights but, um, basic commonsense understanding of what influences purchasing decisions - certainly not an unwanted phone call received in the middle of a family dinner from a bot offering a discount on your next dental cleaning.

And yet, companies continue to lobby the FCC to retain the right to robocalls. In fact, there are some uses cases where robocalls are useful - such as when public schools use them to aler the student body of weather-related school closures or when a pharmacy calls to remind you to refill a prescription.

But given the slew of unwanted robocalls received by the average consumer on a daily basis, they’re likely trained to ignore those calls, too, and miss out on important information. Next best alternative? Email.

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