Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under I, Robot on the other line

Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s latest in the Washington Post is on How robo-call moguls outwitted the government and completely wrecked the Do Not Call list. The title is actually a bit misleading, because there’s not so much outwitting the government as flouting the law and hoping the government doesn’t have enough resources to enforce the law. It’s been a good bet so far:

Since the robo-call ban went into effect in 2009, the FTC has brought just 33 cases against robo-callers. In those cases, defendants have been ordered to pay nearly $300 million in relief to victims, and nearly $30 million in civil penalties to the government. But even then, the FTC can’t force perpetrators to pay the fine if they argue they’re broke. Which robo-callers often seem to be. So the FTC has only collected on a fraction of those sums: $18 million in relief and less than $1 million in penalties.

Shell companies have insulated these folks from nearly 94% of the fines and damages they owe for breaking the law. Imagine if bank robbers could skirt the law like that.

In van Zuylen-Wood’s retelling, the government draws the ire of the public for failing to stop robo-calling spam.

At the root of this public relations problem is a likely misapprehension about how the Do Not Call Registry works. When you add your number to the list, nothing actually happens. No legal muscle or technological wizardry suddenly prevents a solicitor from calling you. All the list does is provide you with vague recourse in the event you are called, by allowing you to complain that someone has called you. So, you can report the violation by calling a toll-free number or filling out a form on the Do Not Call website. Then, if the number you were called from shows up in enough complaints, the FTC will leap into action and prosecute the offending dialer.

Except, it almost certainly won’t. In the age of live telemarketing, the mere threat of prosecution or penalty was enough to deter companies with shareholders and reputations to protect. In the robo-calling epoch, dialers couldn’t care less. One, nobody knows who they are or where they’re calling from, because they all spoof their numbers. Two, more of them are doing it every year, since it’s cheap and easy to blast out automated calls from anywhere in the world. All this makes it nearly impossible to identify robo-callers, let alone penalize them. At a hearing on robo-calls in October, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was getting so many of them, she’d disconnected her home phone. “The list,” she said, “doesn’t work.”

​The article also covers a series of variously effective technological band-aids for the underlying problem. Spoilers: none of them work, and we have to rely on the phone companies to fundamentally change how telephony works. Don’t hold your breath, only your calls.