red tape-1Your phone rings. You look down at your phone, which reads “IRS.” You answer. “Hello?” There’s a pause. Then, in an automated tone, you hear this: “This call is to inform you that the IRS is filing a lawsuit against you. To get more information about this case file, please call immediately on our department number (202) 470-2565. I repeat (202) 470-2565. Thank you.”

Does this sound familiar to you? If not, perhaps you’ve been lucky and have escaped being one of the over 10,000 victims of this scam in which sellers pretend to be representing the IRS and claim the called party owes back taxes, but I’m sure you’ve received something along these lines:

Phone rings. This time, you don’t recognize the number, but it’s a local one so you pick up. “Hello?” Pause. “Hello?” you repeat. Then, again in that awful automated tone, you hear this: “Hi, this is Rachel from Card Services calling about your credit card account. It appears that you are now eligible for a significantly lower interest rate on your account. However, this offer is about to expi…” [Click]. You hang up.

These are called robocalls, and attempts at controlling their deleterious effects are no new endeavor. Unfortunately, they haven’t been so successful. Robocalls and telemarketing calls are the top source of consumer complaints received by the FCC, with U.S. consumers having received an estimated 2.4 billion robocalls per month in 2016.

Fortunately, the FCC has joined the industry to try to combat these scammers and last week, released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Notice of Inquiry (NOI) which, if passed, would remove some of the existing regulatory roadblocks by allowing voice providers to block spoofed robocalls without running afoul of the FCC rules requiring carriers to complete all calls.

By way of background, in 1991, Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibits certain calling practices without the prior express consent of the called party. Then, in 2009, it enacted the Truth in Caller ID Act, which made caller ID spoofing (i.e., the altering or manipulation of caller ID information to fake or hide the caller’s true identity) illegal if done “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” (Note that there are sometimes legitimate uses for spoofing, such as domestic violence shelters seeking to protect victims, companies wanting to display their main office number, or businesses seeking to have their customer service number appear for return call purposes.) But bad guys will be bad guys, and where there’s a will there’s a way. Unfortunately, neither the TCPA nor the Truth in Caller ID Act deter illegal robocallers, many of whom operate from outside our country’s borders (think Philippines or India).

So in 2016, industry responded by establishing the Robocall Strike Force, which is intended to arm consumers with call blocking tools and identify ways voice providers can proactively block illegal robocalls before they ever reach the consumer’s phone. Although the FCC has long had a strong policy against allowing providers to block calls for fear of degrading the reliability of the nation’s communications network, it has now agreed to collaborate with industry in an attempt at achieving this common goal.

The proposed rules would allow carriers to continue to block spoofed caller ID numbers associated with phone lines that do not actually dial out (e.g., IRS lines not used for outbound calls). They would also allow for provider-initiated blocking of calls purportedly originating from: (1) numbers that are not valid under the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), including numbers with unassigned area codes; (2) numbers that are valid but have not yet been allocated by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA) or the National Number Pool Administrator (PA) to any provider; and (3) numbers that the NANPA or PA has allocated to a provider, but are not currently assigned to a subscriber. The Commission is also seeking special comment on how to address spoofed calls from international locations, where scammers often hide to avoid U.S. legal processes.

We will be keeping an eye on this proceeding, but in the meantime, please feel free to contact FHH with any questions.