Coronavirus Robocall Scams Spotlight Need for Better Consumer Protections

The FCC and FTC took action this week to crack down on the problem, but advocates ask for stronger measures

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Federal regulators took action this week to crack down on predatory robocallers seeking to exploit consumer fears raised by the coronavirus pandemic. But consumer advocates worry that the moves don’t adequately address the threat.

The Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission sent letters on Friday to three little-known U.S.-based telecom providers, accusing them of allowing coronavirus-related robocalls to enter the U.S. from Pakistan and the Philippines.

The federal officials gave the three companies two days to put a stop to the robocalls or risk having all their calls blocked.

More on Robocalls & Telecom

That news comes on the heels of the FCC’s Tuesday approval of rules requiring all U.S. phone companies to install new consumer protections against robocalls.

The guidelines, which are in line with anti-robocall legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump late last year, require telecommunications providers to implement by the end of June 2021, at no charge, Shaken/Stir authentication technology that will help customers identify who’s calling.

The technology protects consumers from spoofed numbers by using digital fingerprints or tokens to help determine whether the number from which a call is placed is the same as the number that shows up on Caller ID. Scammers use spoof calls to mask their identity by changing the number displayed on a caller ID.

Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst at Consumer Reports, applauded the FCC’s moves, stressing that given the coronavirus pandemic, the commission needs to make combating scam calls a priority.

In recent weeks, robocall scammers have targeted consumers with fraudulent offers for coronavirus safety and medical kits. And Mahoney says, given the mounting economic instability, she worries about a possible spike in scam debt-collection calls.

“The FCC needs to take decisive action to ensure that phone companies actually stop scam robocalls before they reach the consumer,” she says.

The three companies singled out by federal regulators Friday were identified by the Traceback Group, a consortium of phone companies—managed by the trade group USTelecom—that helps officials track down suspect calls.

In letters to the companies, the FCC and FTC specifically cite a pair of COVID-19-related scam robocall campaigns. One, with calls originating in the Philippines, offers a nonexistent “free test kit.” The other, traced to Pakistan, offers HVAC cleaning services the robocallers falsely claim will help protect you from COVID-19.

The FCC and FTC also wrote to USTelecom to ask its members to begin blocking calls from the three providers cited in the letters if the flood of robocalls is not cut off within 48 hours. But, as Mahoney points out, it’s up to those members to decide whether to follow through on that plan.

Robocall-blocking companies also have noted the uptick in coronavirus-themed calls.

Transaction Network Services, which analyzes data from more than 1 billion daily call events, says it has spotted robocalls touting bogus cures, testing kits, and health information.

In particular, it pointed to one scam call purported to be from the company 3M, offering a coronavirus safety and medical kit. The phone number behind the scam is based in Los Angeles and placed more than 20,000 calls, mostly in the L.A. area.

The FCC estimates that the “wasted time and nuisance” caused by scam robocalls exceeds $3 billion each year, while fraudulent robocall schemes cost Americans about $10 billion annually.

The country’s largest carriers already have begun rolling out Shaken/Stir to combat robocalls. In fact, many consumers may have noticed that their phones now alert them to suspicious calls with labels such as “scam likely” or “spam likely.”

But many smaller carriers have yet to upgrade to the digital infrastructure needed for Shaken/Stir.

The Rural Broadband Association has said its members, many of which still use old analog technology, are working hard to complete the upgrade but need time to tackle the huge financial and logistical challenges associated with the shift.

Under the approved FCC rules, they have a year to put the system in place.

Meanwhile, some states are looking to adopt their own protections.

Legislation under consideration in New York and California would require phone companies to offer call-blocking tools, at no charge, and impose a clear consumer prior-consent requirement for autodialed calls and texts unrelated to emergencies.

How to Protect Yourself From Robocalls

Looking for some help in combating robocalls? Here are some tips from the experts.

List your phone numbers with the Do Not Call Registry. This is a way to request that your landline or cell number be removed from the call lists used by legitimate telemarketing companies. But it doesn’t stop illegal robocallers—who ignore the list—from contacting you, and the DNC registry doesn’t cover calls from organizations like political parties, nonprofits, and companies with which you have established a business relationship.

File a complaint with the FTC and the FCC. The FTC maintains a database of rogue robocallers. This list is used by the call-blocking industry and phone companies to update their call-blocking lists. Also, with the stronger enforcement provisions, the authorities will be able to go after repeat offenders more aggressively than they have in the past. You can file your complaint with the FTC and with the FCC.

Consider using additional robocall-blocking protection. While the major wireless carriers now offer services that can block calls and alert you about incoming calls from potential scammers or spammers at no additional charge, you may be able to beef up your defenses with additional protections offered by carriers or third-party app providers. But keep in mind that some of these apps require you to share a lot of personal information.

Update your contacts list. This is especially important if you choose to enable white-listing, which blocks calls from numbers not stored in your phone. But if you have the feature enabled, you are likely to miss legitimate calls from people not on your contact lists.

Don’t interact with robocallers. No technology is perfect, and some robocalls are likely to get through despite your best efforts. If you do answer a robocall, hang up immediately. Although it may be tempting to give the robocaller a piece of your mind, don’t engage. If you do, you’ll just be encouraging robocallers to keep calling.

Editor’s Note: This article, first published March 31, has been updated to include actions by the FCC and FTC against the three small U.S. telecom providers.

Bree Fowler

Bree Fowler

I write about all things "cyber" and your right to privacy. Before joining Consumer Reports, I spent 16 years reporting for The Associated Press. What I enjoy: cooking and learning to code with my kids. I've lived in the Bronx for more than a decade, but as a proud Michigan native, I will always be a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan no matter how much my family and I get harassed at Yankee Stadium. Follow me on Twitter (@BreeJFowler).