Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Robocalls are Changing The Way We Use Telephones

If you are over the age of 30, you probably remember, at least at one time, answering the phone with "Hello?" Not as in "Hello (friend's name)", but as in "Hello, who is this?"  Well, thanks to caller ID, those days are a distant memory, and thanks to Robocalls, there may soon come a day when you won't even get a phone call from someone you don't know.

Robocalls are massive amounts of unsolicited phone calls, using the help of computer autodialers.  For the poor souls who pick them up (usually the most vulnerable demographic, such as the elderly), a sales call for life insurance, extended car warranties, vacation package, or a fraudulent business proposal awaits them.  Many calls even use recorders in order to commit identity theft.

The concept of these calls are nothing new, but the sheer volume of them, and growth rate are staggering.  Many Americans complain of getting dozens of calls a day, such as the ones in this Reddit Thread

The "Do Not Call List" Does Not

Years ago, congress was roused to deal with this growing problem, so they came up with something called the "Do Not Call Registry".  The idea was that every American who didn't want to get unsolicited phone calls from businesses would put their info on this list, and then THE TELEMARKETERS would, before calling you, CHECK TO SEE IF YOU WERE ON THE LIST, and not call you if so.  Wow congress, perhaps you should just ask them to send a handwritten note of apology as well.  Anyway, that system works about as well as you can guess.  In fact, the List, in a sick twist of irony, probably acts as a damned fine source of telephone numbers that have an high likelihood of being answered.

Spoof Your Neighbor

Another thing that has gotten worse, and promises to drive this ship into the ground, is the use of "Neighbor spoofing".  This is when the caller changes their caller ID info to be random number, usually one in your state, which theoretically increases the chances that you will pick up.  If the caller ID information was consistent, it would be quite trivial to develop a list of calls that have been reported negatively, and compare incoming calls to it. However, the randomization of "Neighbor Spoofing" makes it impossible to detect robocalls with any degree of accuracy, when using the caller ID info alone.

Where is the FCC?

At least outwardly, this is an important issue to the FCC.  The FCC says,
"Unwanted calls – including illegal and spoofed robocalls - are the FCC's top consumer complaint and our top consumer protection priority" - From Consumer Guide on

They go on to say that it is "prohibited to present misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value", and is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 per violation. They say telemarketers should "Display a telephone number you can call during regular business hours to ask to no longer be called"

However, it's pretty obvious that it's gotten out of hand.  As best as I can tell, things start to break down around the following issues:

  • The FCC seems to believe that most people NEED to present alternate caller ID info in order to conduct legitimate business over the phone, and that this needs to be protected.  Their statement on third party services and apps that attempt to surmount the impossible problem of robocall attacks suggests that they are almost more concerned for the businesses that call people.
  • This term "telemarketers" is a quaint term with a narrow, and probably easily circumvented, definition. 
  • It is impossible to track, let alone follow up on, all of the violations of these rules. There is a complaint form on the FCC page, but ironically, in order to fill it out, you have to provide info about the caller, which means you need to have answered the call. 

A Backwards View

The bottom line is that the whole system seems to rely too much on self-policing.  Caller ID spoofing legality (or lack thereof) seems to have very little impact, due to lack of enforcement.  The government wants to protect callers, seemingly more than they want to protect the recipients.  To me that is completely backwards.  The recipients are the ones who have the most to lose.  As usual, the government is bought and paid for by businesses, and they want to be able to call people and make sales.  

The solution is: Eliminate (or demote calls with) spoofed caller ID.  Caller ID info sent by callers must be verified and consistent.  This is similar to how email works.  Servers identify themselves to each other, and if they are not verified, no one pays attention to them.  The spam is still out there, but it can be classified.

Doing this would require some help from Congress.  We need legislation that stops protecting caller ID spoofing, and starts exposing it.  Telephone companies needs to require authentic and consistent caller ID info, and provide this info to their customers when calls come to them.  It will affect their bottom line, and you can bet they won't do it without a literal act of congress.

But even if you don't have a stomach for my rather socialist point of view, maybe this will speak to you: 

If you don't preserve the integrity of the telephone service, people will abandon it.  

What does the Ghost-of-Telephone-Future show us?  The net effect will be the same.  A world where all calls will be subject to white-listing or screening.  That means that, the days in which a person or company, with lawful intent, may call someone and speak to them on the first try, are effectively over.  We are moving to a system where callers must present some piece of authenticity before the call will be routed.  And eventually the robocallers will spoof that too.  The telephone system will eventually disintegrate, in favor of chat messaging apps and VOIP services that are not bound by the antiquated limitations and freedoms of the old telephone service.  If you think they won't do it, go talk to a 25 year old person. Ask them how often they intentionally use their phone to speak (voice) to another person.

Ironically, this is exactly the scenario the FCC is trying to prevent.  

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