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INSIGHT: Efforts to Block Robocall ‘Gateway’ Providers Are Getting Stronger

March 23, 2020, 8:00 AM

There is a paradigm shift underway in the robocall wars. Government and industry are ramping up legal pressure not just on the scammers initiating junk calls but also against the “gateway providers” allowing billions of them to enter our shared communications networks in the first place.

Think about the last time you made a call. You might assume your carrier delivered the call directly to the service provider of the person you called.

In reality, a network of interconnected providers carried your call over the telephone system, handing it down the line from one provider to the next until it reached its destination. Sort of like a high-tech relay race that passes calls around the world in milliseconds.

What this means is a subset of relatively under-the-radar voice companies can end up playing an outsized role in connecting the world’s calls over the internet—including the flood of IRS, Social Security, student loan, and credit card scams degrading the collective trust in our phones.

Taking Action

Help is on the way. The Industry Traceback Group has taken the lead in identifying the source of these illegal call campaigns and the providers allowing them to bombard the integrated U.S. telephone network.

Coordinated by USTelecom, this SWAT team of dozens of responsible wired, wireless, cable, and voice over IP providers actively trace robocalls backward through the “hops” of the relay race, helping identify repeat illegal robocall offenders and providing valuable intel to law enforcement.

At the moment, in coordination with government partners, our group is tracing the origin of millions of suspicious robocalls using the Covid-19 public health emergency to prey on consumers, including a dangerous scam pushing an at-home coronavirus testing kit.

Last year, our group conducted more than 1,000 tracebacks implicating more than 10 million robocalls. Often in just a matter of minutes, we can figure out who was behind the robocall, in what country it started, and what was the nature of the scam.

What are we finding? Traceback has identified a number of providers who look the other way and allow huge volumes of suspicious calls to enter the system through their networks and spread like a virus to our phones.

More than 200 companies have participated in traceback investigations. In some cases, we referred our findings to government or answered subpoenas and investigative demands from federal and state law enforcement agencies—information that has been critical in notching some big wins.

FTC, DOJ Actions

In December, the Federal Trade Commission and Ohio attorney general asked a federal court to halt the operation of Globex Telecom for allegedly promoting a phony credit card scam that stole millions from consumers. The next month, the FTC sent letters to 19 VoIP service providers warning that “assisting and facilitating” illegal telemarketing or robocalling is against the law.

In January, the Justice Department filed civil actions against companies and individuals allegedly responsible for carrying hundreds of millions of fraudulent robocalls from India that led to “massive financial losses to elderly and vulnerable victims.” The department cited our traceback data in its complaint.

Most recently, the Federal Communications Commission asked a number of questions of phone companies identified as the “gateway provider” allowing international and illegal robocalls onto the U.S. telephone network, based in part on our tracebacks.

The message from government is clear: Enforcement agencies are not just looking at the scammers and spoofers responsible for making illegal robocalls; they are also directing their considerable firepower at the providers who knowingly turn a blind eye to illegal calls coming from their networks.

Our message to these “gateway providers” and those who originate illegal calls: Innovators are investing mightily to expand our networks and take the integrity of our infrastructure seriously. You should too.

Providers on Notice

Voice service providers have an obligation to reduce the flow of these calls. This means not just participating in our tracebacks, but taking immediate action if their business model is enabling the spread of illegal robocalls.

Some providers have stepped up and joined this traceback work. Others have not been cooperative at all. They are now officially on notice. If you don’t know how to prevent illegal robocalls from entering the U.S. telephone network, then frankly, you have no business being part of our communications network.

The recently passed TRACED Act ushered in several new rules to protect consumers from illegal robocalls. It specifically requires the FCC to expand private sector traceback work, and our head start will help the FCC and enforcement agencies get better—and faster—at preventing illegal robocalls.

The robocall battle will not be won overnight, but industry’s innovative traceback group is in this for the long haul—committed to giving providers and government the tools with a fighting chance to stop the onslaught of garbage call campaigns and ultimately help us reclaim our phones.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom—The Broadband Association, the national trade association representing technology providers, innovators, suppliers, and manufacturers committed to connecting the world through the power of broadband. Prior to joining USTelecom, Spalter served as chair of Mobile Future, the national wireless technology association. In addition to leading technology companies in the U.S. and Europe, Spalter held key national security and technology roles in the federal government.

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