Sadly, these calls are often more than just an irritation or minor inconvenience. Many robocalls are actually scam calls, where some bad actor attempts to swindle an unsuspecting consumer out of their hard-earned money.
You might be wondering, why can't phone companies stop robocalls to begin with if the calls themselves are originating on their networks? Should it not be easy to spot the difference between an actual user with standard call patterns and someone who must be calling hundreds or even thousands of people in a day as a part of some robocall-related scheme?
The answer, as it turns out, is complex.
First, it's important to understand what tools phone companies have access to thanks to entities like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC). To their credit, the United States government has taken a number of steps to mitigate the impact of robocalls.
Enacted in 1991, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA for short, was designed to place restrictions on autodialing and pre-recorded robocalls to residential phone lines and smartphones. It also covers SMS and even unsolicited faxes. In essence, it’s an attempt to restrict the types of robocalls that can be made by all entities — from telemarketers to debt collectors.
Essentially, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was born out of a response to the ever-increasing volume of robocalls people were reporting to the FCC at the time. And although technology has evolved, so have scammers. The TCPA has made an impact over the last 30+ years, but remains an imperfect solution to robocalls.
The TCPA itself has been updated over the years in an attempt to stay ahead of robocallers and other scammers. As of 2012, callers need to get prior, written consent from you prior to placing a robocall of any kind. Essentially, you have to opt in if you want to receive such calls or the organization in question is in direct violation of the TCPA. This applies to both scammers and legitimate callers.
It’s worth noting that businesses are not allowed to simply say you have a pre-existing relationship because you've made a purchase from them in the past as an excuse to start robocalling you. They need to obtain your consent, no matter what. Finally, there needs to be a way to opt out of getting robocalls during each one that you receive. A violation of any one of these points is a violation of the Act and could come with serious penalties.
Another major step the FCC took to combat robocalls was the establishment of the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003. Started in association with the FTC, this was a groundbreaking idea at the time. It was broad in scope and, provided you added your number to the Do Not Call Registry, you would not receive calls from unsolicited telemarketers of any kind (with a few notable exceptions such as political campaigns and informational non-sales calls).
Another essential tool in the fight against robocalls is the TRACED Act, passed in 2019 as an amendment to the TCPA. The TRACED Act enhanced the power that the FCC had to address robocalls. It places a burden on phone companies to do everything within their power to help prevent robocalls and scam calls from getting through.
Under the TRACED Act, all voice providers need to show they're implementing state-of-the-art solutions to properly authenticate incoming and outgoing calls. The FCC now has the power to pursue and investigate robocall offenses for a far longer time than ever: up to four years. The TRACED Act also allowed the FCC and the Department of Justice to develop a task force that will continue to work on and implement new laws in the future.
Any voice provider that is found to be in violation of the TRACED Act could see a maximum fine of up to $10,000 per robocall violation.
Speaking of that task force, one of the biggest advancements to come out of it was called the STIR/SHAKEN protocol. This acts as a set of criteria phone carriers can use to make sure they're taking the proper steps to eliminate robocalls.
STIR/SHAKEN is not in itself a robocall blocker. Instead, it’s a call authentication framework — when applied by phone providers, it’s useful in identifying where calls are originating from. Although the protocol does not expressly "stop" robocalls, it provides critical information and guardrails for which carriers must comply.
The government has shown the ability to identify widespread robocall scams and cut that traffic off. In recent months, the Bureau has made a dent in car warranty scams, student loan scams, and even mortgage scams. They’ve shown they’ll shut down phone carriers if they permit illegal robocall traffic, too.
Of course, all of these things sound great when it comes to stopping robocalls in their tracks. It's a bit harder for things to play out the way that they're supposed to in practice. The same obstacles that are preventing Congress from truly putting an end to robocalls are often the ones that the telephone companies face, too. For example:
One of the major issues that comes along with the enforcement of things such as the TCPA has to do with the fact that, even though someone is breaking the law by violating the Act, they're probably already breaking the law by placing the robocall in the first place. So, what’s one more violation to them?
The same is true with the National Do Not Call Registry. If someone is calling you in an attempt to get you to fall victim to a scam, that's already illegal. At that point, they're probably not worried about any potential consequences that come with calling someone on the list should they happen to get caught.
It's also important to note that a lot of these robocallers use technology to mask their locations in the first place. One of the most common involves "spoofing" phone numbers — meaning that a robocall appears on Caller ID to be coming from some totally different number than the one it’s actually from. If you've ever supposedly received a telephone call from yourself, this is why. This makes scammers very difficult to catch.
Even if someone with access to the right tools should catch a robocaller, it's also very likely that the call is originating from out of the country, meaning it's largely impossible to enforce both the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the National Do Not Call Registry, along with any other legislation that should be passed in the future.
With that, the answer to the question "why can't phone companies stop robocalls?" becomes clear. The technologies and the techniques that scammers and others with malicious intentions use are often one step ahead of those trying to stop them. It truly is a situation where, when one door closes, they simply open and go through another.
Because of that, while it's true that organizations are doing a lot to help protect consumers against spam calls and other issues, it’s important to take matters into your own hands as much as possible.
By far, one of the most important steps you can take to avoid a robocall involves precisely that — ignoring them altogether. If you receive a call from an unknown number and are fairly certain that it’s a scam call, whatever you do, don't answer the phone. Even if you never hear the message or get connected to a live operator, all this will do is confirm that the person on the other end is working with a phone number that is associated with a real person. This virtually guarantees that you're going to receive more of these calls in the future.
If you do pick up the phone only to realize that you're getting a robocall, hang up right away. Do not try to engage and absolutely do not follow any directions. Sometimes you'll hear a part of the message that says you should "press 1 to speak to a representative." Don't do this, because it will confirm that the number is active.
Depending on the type of smartphone you have, you can also choose to block the number at the source. You can often do so directly from the "Call History" portion of the "Phone" app. The only issue with this is that it’s very unlikely a scammer would ever attempt to contact you from the same number twice. Still, even if it blocks one or two calls, it's worth the few seconds of effort that it takes.
Another step that you can take to help avoid robocalls involves adding all of your telephone numbers to the aforementioned Do Not Call Registry. Keep in mind that you need to add every phone number associated with your name individually. You can't just add your landline telephone number and expect it to cover your smartphone just because they're both owned by the same person. You need to go through and add them one by one for maximum effectiveness.
Of course, because the very act of placing a scam call is against the law, it's again likely someone will continue to break the law by willfully violating the National Do Not Call Registry. Still, it never hurts to try.
In the end, it's not that phone companies don’t want to stop the robocall problem that millions of people are facing — it's that it’s an uphill task. The FCC and FTC are working hard to provide the tools necessary and phone companies themselves have shown that they want to contribute in any way that they can. It will require a unified effort between the government, phone companies, and third-party apps to rid spam once and for all.
On an individual level, a spam blocker app like Robokiller is your best chance of eliminating as many robocalls and phone scams as possible. Designed to block 99% of spam calls, Robokiller is your best protection against scammers and telemarketers.
Robokiller automatically checks the numbers that contact your phone against a global database of known scammers. If there’s a match, the call won’t reach your phone. Not only that, Robokiller also empowers you to waste robocallers’ time and prevent them from stealing from other people via Answer Bots.
All told, Robokiller has blocked more than 1 billion spam calls since its inception and saved people from more than $600 million in financial losses.