FCC proposal would let it punish international robocallers

While the FCC and Congress hammer out new rules to (hopefully) banish robocalls forever, there are some short-term solutions that can help in the meantime — and one may arrive in just a few weeks. A new FCC proposal allows the agency to go after scam calls that originate overseas or use other methods to evade existing spoofing laws.

The rule isn’t exactly new in that it is a follow-up to Ray Baum’s Act, which was passed last year and, among other things, bulked up the Truth in Caller ID Act.

Previously, the latter law prohibited scammy spoofing of numbers, a practice that makes robocalling much easier — but it only applied to calls originating in the country. That opened up a huge loophole for scammers, who are not short on means to make calls internationally. Ray Baum’s Act modifies those rules to specifically prohibit international spoofing, as well as robocall techniques using modern infrastructure like VoIP.

But just making it illegal doesn’t necessarily make it possible for the FCC to go after the criminals. If there’s nothing in the agency’s official rules that formalize how it would go about locating and taking action against those in violation of the new law, it has no power to do so. That’s what this new rule is for.

Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal will be made public later this week and voted on at the FCC’s August 1 open meeting. If adopted, the agency would be able to do what it’s been doing with U.S. robocallers, except abroad.

Naturally tracking down scammers in a foreign country — and perhaps not an overly friendly one — is a very different beast than catching and fining domestic operations. An FCC official on a press call relating to the new rules characterized the operations as extremely complex, involving multiple shell companies and sophisticated obfuscation techniques. (The FTC has encountered similar difficulties.)

But many robocallers may well have been operating hitherto on the justified assumption that they were essentially immune to pursuit by U.S. authorities. Once they are no longer guaranteed impunity it may (one hopes) be deemed an unnecessary risk to continue operations, and some of the scammers may cut and run with their gains and move on to something else.

As for more long-term solutions, the carriers are working on implementing a new system that would more comprehensively block robocalls, though there is some concern that they won’t enable it by default, or may charge for the service. A summit is being held Thursday where the industry’s progress and intentions will be gauged.