Does it seem like you’ve been getting more calls about your car’s extended warranty or fake IRS alerts? It’s not just you. According to the spam-blocking company YouMail, robocalls have spiked in the last few months since hitting a low in December.
That month, about 3.5 billion such calls were made. In March, this figure rose to 4.3 billion robocalls, around 30 percent of which were scams. However, the amount of robocalls a year earlier, in March 2021, was even higher, at 4.9 billion. (The scam percentage can also fluctuate from month to month, at times exceeding 40 percent.)
In response to this spike, social media users have recently been blaming Ajit Pai, the industry-friendly chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Trump administration, for failing to uphold rules that were meant to crack down on robocalls.
Is Pai really responsible for all the scam robocalls these days? His critics’ arguments seem to hinge on his lack for support for a 2015 anti-robocalling rule from the Obama-era FCC. The rule expanded the definition of an “autodialer” to include any devices that had the capacity to make robocalls, even if they hadn’t been modified to do so.
In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found the 2015 rule to be too broad and thus struck it down. The judges were concerned that, under this expanded definition, any smartphone could be classified as an autodialer since there are apps you can download to make robocalls. Many of Pai’s current critics appear to be needling him for failing to appeal that decision. Pai in fact celebrated the court’s move at the time, and described the 2015 rule as “yet another example of the prior FCC’s disregard for the law and regulatory overreach.”
But it’s tricky to connect the 2018 decision to the fact that your phone now rings off the hook. While it may have loosened restrictions on robocalls, it had little to do with the proliferation of scams. Instead, the elimination of the 2015 rule was helpful mostly to commercial institutions. At play “were very esoteric issues that had much more to do with the legality of non-scammers like debt collectors,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center who has testified before the Senate about robocalls. Debt collectors and banks do make plenty of incessant and annoying robocalls in an attempt to pursue people to pay back their debts, a practice that can often look like harassment. It’s an issue, but a separate issue. Those robocalls, while invasive, aren’t scams.
Pai did put forth some effort to address scam robocalls, by allowing carriers to block them automatically as well as implementing more flagging tools. These solutions ultimately fell flat. Still, it might be a bit unfair to place the majority of the blame for our spam-call predicament on him. “Chairman Pai wasn’t particularly aggressive, but you can’t lay the problem at his door,” said Saunders. “There is no proceeding that he failed to appeal that would have made the difference in this, in my opinion.” The reality is that any esoteric rule change might not help all that much with scams. “If you’re talking about a criminal trying to scam you, they’re not going to abide by the rules anyway,” Saunders said.
So what’s actually to blame for the increase of scam robocalls? Saunders points to the evolution of the telephone providers system. It used to be that one company would provide service to both the caller and the recipient for a single call. Nowadays, a call goes through multiple providers, which keeps costs down, but also makes vetting for scams harder. It’s a wider systemic issue that FCC commissioners before, during, and after Pai’s tenure haven’t been able to solve. Asked if there was any one person who could be blamed for the scourge of robocalls, Saunders quipped, “Alexander Graham Bell.”