Telecommunications technology is booming, but with the positive developments have come some negatives, including new ways to skirt laws banning illegal sales calls.
Such prohibited calls include robotic sales calls and solicitation calls to names on the national Do Not Call Registry. In an effort to address the illicit “robocalls” — those using automatic dialing and speaking — the Federal Trade Commission recently issued a challenge offering $50,000 to anyone who could find a way to block the unlawful calls.
The deadline for entries expired last week, and a panel of judges is wading through more than 370 valid submissions. The winner, to be named in April, will receive the cash in hopes of encouraging that person or entity to develop and market a technology for the millions of people who have filed robocall-related complaints with the FTC.
On the rise
In the 2012 budget year, the FTC received 3.84 million complaints nationwide from registrants on the do-not-call list. Of those complaints, 2.26 million involved a recorded message, according to the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry’s data book. In Iowa, residents on the list filed 30,737 complaints in the last budget year, up from 19,650 in 2011 and 12,089 in 2010.
Telecommunications and technology experts in Iowa say complaints are on the rise as illegal callers are discovering new and simpler ways to blast residents with telephonic sales pitches.
Although most say a tool to block those calls would be welcome, they believe creating one is almost impossible. And, some say, it should be avoided because of First Amendment issues and because some robocalls are beneficial.
Consider those issued by schools or law enforcement regarding emergency situations or meetings, said Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa adjunct professor who has served on the Federal Communications Commission, a government group similar to the FTC.
And, Johnson said, robocalls that are political in nature are ignored by federal law because of free speech concerns.
“There is a balance between allowing robocalls and allowing people to opt out,” he said. “You need to take into account that there are First Amendment issues. It doesn’t mean we can’t have a do-not-call list. It means we can’t unilaterally strike (robocalls) down.”
Johnson said caller identification has been a great way to screen out unwanted sales calls in the past, but illegal callers have found ways around that. Techniques, Johnson said, include disguising phone numbers or making them appear local.
“One reason we might have seen an increase in complaints in Iowa is that telemarketing is now an industry in this state,” he said.
It’s not unusual for government agencies — like the FTC and the FCC — to issue public challenges for monetary rewards.
In fact, the federal government currently has 237 open challenges like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ $80,000 challenge asking developers to design a mobile application helping people live well.
Johnson said spending money on the front end to motivate innovation can save money in the long run.
Iowa State University professor Doug Jacobson said he thinks the FTC’s challenge is difficult because, how do you define “illegal robocalls?”
“It’s like saying, ‘Let’s make spam illegal,’?” he said. “Well, when is something spam vs. email? When does something cross that line of being an illegal robocall?”
Jacobson, who teaches computer engineering, said there might be a way to make it more difficult for robocalls to get through, but that could block other calls as well. And, he said, robocallers likely would just find another technique.
“They adapt to the technologies,” he said.
Any real fix, Jacobson said, is going to have to come from the carriers — and he doesn’t think they’re interested.
“They make money on call volume,” he said.
Jacobson credited the government for trying to find a solution but said that unless they step up enforcement, violators are going to keep taking chances with illegal automated calls.
“If I’m not going to get caught, and there is no penalty, I might as well do it,” he said.
Don’t stay silent
The FTC handles call complaints — a number that is almost three times greater than it was five years ago. But Kati Daffan, an attorney with the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, said the federal agency isn’t able to respond or investigate every gripe.
“We use them to spot trends and things that a lot of people are complaining about,” she said.
Each complaint is automatically entered into a database accessible by any law enforcement agency in the country, Daffan said. Investigators can jump into the database to check details about a local complaint, and Daffan said, agencies can sign up to receive alerts when a local complaint is filed.“There is a strong reason to complain because it is getting the word out to law enforcement in this country that this is something that happened to you,” she said.