Today the FTC is announcing new initiatives to address robocalls: those annoying automated sales calls from businesses you have never heard of.
We get over 200,000 consumer complaints about robocalls every month. A great many of these calls violate rules governing telemarketing, which the FTC enforces. These rules generally prohibit prerecorded sales calls to consumers, unless the telemarketer has obtained permission in writing from the consumer. (There are some exceptions, such as purely informational calls letting you know that your flight is delayed, your shipment will be delivered tomorrow, etc.)
I encourage you to check out the FTC’s robocall page, at ftc.gov/robocalls, and watch for information about the robocall summit we’ll be convening on October 18 in Washington, DC.
In this post, I want to talk about some technical issues connected to robocalls.
The growth in robocalls has been enabled by technological changes that have drastically decreased the cost of making phone calls. The same technologies that let us talk to people around the world for almost no cost have also, unfortunately, opened the door to exploitation by bad actors. In the old days, when phone calls were expensive, most businesses would think twice before shelling out the money to make a call to you–many would only call you if they had some reason to believe you wanted to do business with them. But now, with their cost per call down around one cent or less, they can afford to call and call and call–assuming they’re willing to break the law and risk FTC enforcement.
Robocall companies use technical tricks to lower their costs even more. For example, some experts believe that the robo-voices that you hear on their calls are chosen, in part, because they are especially compressible–they can be transmitted at low data rates and still sound good. This allows the robocallers to cram more simultaneous calls through the same Internet connection.
Another interesting tech question is how to catch the robocallers and their confederates. They have long since figured out how to evade or misuse Caller ID, a system that was never really designed to provide any kind of strong proof of the caller’s identity. Caller ID works well when the participants in routing a call are cooperating nicely, but it relies on callers or their technological proxies to send accurate identifying information–which is no longer universal now that the phone system is no longer run by a few well-established companies but is open to connections from almost anybody. Again, the thriving, diverse ecosystem of companies providing phone services is a good thing on the whole, having unleashed innovation and lowered prices, but it does have a dark side. The good news is that are things we can do to track down robocallers by using a combination of technical and legal methods.
But more needs to be done. That’s why we will be calling on the technology community to work on innovative approaches to attack the robocall problem. Can you help consumers protect themselves? Can you help law enforcement identify robocallers more quickly? Can you think of some other way to frustrate robocallers? Stay tuned for details about our technology challenge.