Point: Government can do more to end robocall madness

From the column: "Instead of trying to improve the Do Not Call Registry, Congress should consider going after some of the root causes of this digital pestilence."

Bruce Plante / Cagle Cartoons

Congress created the Do Not Call Registry in 2003 by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, and still robocalls kept coming.

The Federal Trade Commission outlawed robocalls outright in 2009, and yet they kept coming — by the billions.

Samsung, Apple, LG, and other smartphone manufacturers created call-block features, but spam sellers outwit them by using cheap computer programs that scramble the digits to produce all manner of phony alternative incoming numbers.

There is no doubt that the registry has been somewhat effective. Since I added my phone number to it, the number of robocalls to me dropped. Yet even with my number registered, I still get many unwanted calls, most from recorded devices.

Americans receive more than 3 billion robocalls a month — three times the amount six years ago.


While somewhat effective, the National Do Not Call Registry is an institutional form of the Dutch boy from the 1865 American novel “Hans Brinker”: the boy who stood all night in freezing cold with his finger plugging a hole in the dike. Hans, though, saved his country; the registry, for all its creators’ good intentions, has not saved us from robocalls.

The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the registry, says it contains 221 million numbers. On the surface, that sounds like, in the indelible words of Borat from the great Sacha Baron Cohen film of the same name, “great success!” Yet the list has not been purged, so many of the numbers go back years and are either out of service or belong to different users than those who originally registered the numbers.

A bigger problem is the FTC’s paltry enforcement. Its website says the federal agency “takes aggressive legal action” against violators of the registry’s ban on unsolicited calls. Yet it has brought a mere 153 enforcement actions, or an average of 8.5 per year. While those suits have recovered $292 million in civil penalties or restitution, you don’t have to be a math whizz to realize that the chances of violators being punished are almost nil.

The entire annual budget of the Federal Trade Commission is $308 million. Tasked with big-ticket responsibilities ranging from overseeing bankruptcy claims to enforcing antitrust laws, oversight of the Do Not Call Registry is a relatively small part of its portfolio.

The single-most-compelling statistic for arguing in favor of stronger federal action against robocalls is this: The FTC receives 19,000 complaints a day, as the Washington Post reported in January 2018 — from people whose numbers are already on the Do Not Call Registry. A full 78% of the complaints are about robocalls.

With the government already spending trillions of dollars on controlling the coronavirus pandemic, fighting climate change, and combatting terrorism (just to name a few of its more daunting tasks), it is unrealistic to ask lawmakers to give the Federal Trade Commission the huge amounts of increased funding that would be necessary to really clamp down on robocalls.

Also unrealistic is the advice doled out by the FTC and various consumer groups, such as the warning to answer calls only from numbers you recognize. As a journalist, I get calls from hundreds of sources. Many use numbers I don’t know or, especially with the rise of cellphones, are different from those I used for my initial outreach. We also can’t possibly memorize all the numbers in our personal databases. When I’m on deadline waiting for an important source or two to return a call, I can’t afford to ignore those calls that come from unknown numbers. Simple logic dictates that my peers in other fields face the same constraints, from lawyers working a case to businesspeople negotiating a deal.

On a personal level, what if it’s your kid calling on a friend’s cell phone because his or her device has died or (my fellow parents will appreciate this) has temporarily been lost? Would you want to miss such a call after a car accident?


Instead of trying to improve the Do Not Call Registry, Congress should consider going after some of the root causes of this digital pestilence. It could start by putting data brokers out of business. These firms make huge profits by selling our phone numbers and other personal information to hosts of companies big and small, from insurance firms and car-warranty peddlers to charities doing good work.

The sale of our personal data should be illegal without our express permission. And such a ban must close the kind of huge loophole that has opened with the fairly recent requirement for website hosts to get our permission to collect the computer “cookies” that track our internet itineraries. Started in 2018 with a data-protection law implemented by the European Union, many web hosts have turned this requirement into an ironic farce: If you don’t allow them to collect cookies, you can’t use the site.

We unwittingly give some companies permission to sell our data in small print no one ever reads or can even find. This has to change. Firms must be required to get our explicit permission through clear, bold and large solicitations — and we shouldn’t be blocked from doing digital business with them if we say no.

Congress should also ban the use of ANI — Automatic Number Identification — systems that capture and store our phone numbers when we dial 800 or other toll-free numbers, to be sold later to the highest bidder.

The Do Not Call Registry remains a good weapon against robocalls, but it’s hardly enough. Congress must expand our arsenal to match the firepower that telephonic cheats, swindlers, and other scam artists use to disrupt our already harried lives.

James Rosen is a longtime Washington correspondent who has covered Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. He recently received the top award for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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