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October 11th, 2020

Already a Scourge, Robocalls and Texts Become Political Weapons

With just weeks to go before election day, phones in the U.S. are ringing, and texts are pinging at an alarming rate. Virtually no one is immune to these election-related robocalls across channels: email, social, mobile, and landlines. Although robocontact has long been a source of annoyance and fraud for everyone, it’s becoming a more serious threat to the public health and safety. 

Recently, policymakers have raised flags about the content of robocalls and what they can enable‒such as election-related disinformation campaigns targeting minority communities. And federal and state legislators, and regulators have enacted several new laws to protect consumers.

Vigilance and action across the call ecosystem is vital to stop the epidemic of illegal robocalls. While it must be collaborative effort to succeed, it’s Voice Service Providers (VSPs) who are being tasked with the responsibility of both protecting the health and safety of the public‒and enhancing the communication experience. 

Through the TRACED Act, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that all voice carriers implement STIR/SHAKEN call authentication by June 2021 and expanded the authority of the FCC and DOJ. The FCC then followed up with a Second Order and Report, providing special considerations for small and intermediate carriers and extensions in some cases. But, in all cases, the FCC mandates the use of robocall mitigation solutions in the interim. 

It’s relentless and often annoying. But is it illegal?
According to the YouMail Robocall Index, the U.S. recorded 58.5 billion robocalls in 2019, a dramatic rise of 22% from 2018. Almost half were scams and another 14% were telemarketing calls which led to 5.4 million consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission last year. Another key survey by Harris Poll revealed the impact of this scourge: over $19.7B in losses last year due to scams. 

According to the FCC, political campaign-related robocalls (including autodialed live calls, prerecorded voice messages, and text messages) are:

  • Not allowed to cell phones, pagers, or other mobile devices without the called party's prior express consent.
  • Not allowed to protected phone lines such as emergency or toll-free lines, or lines serving hospitals or similar facilities, unless made with the called party's prior express consent.
  • Allowed when made to landline telephones, even without prior express consent

Lax policing and enforcement dilute impact.
Many calls and texts are from real candidates and volunteers, sharing information about voting, candidate positions and fundraising. However, we’re living in a year rife with disinformation, hidden agendas, malicious intent and outright fraud which further erodes trust among citizens regardless of political affiliation. Campaigns devour data from voter registration files, surveys, and other sources more to find people interested in their messages, regardless of whether those people have explicitly agreed to receive texts. 

The government continues to establish the right rules and deal with the rulebreakers, identifying legal vs. illegal calls has long been a spotty science. So has enforcement. And that’s a big problem. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2019 claims the widespread loss of trust due to cybercrime as one of the greatest strategic risks facing the world. Even more sobering, the chances of being investigated and prosecuted for cybercrimes in the US is estimated to be a dismal 0.05%.

Bottom line: there remains plenty of opportunity and little risk for those who want to game the system with hidden agendas.

Texts outpace calls in this election cycle.
As both parties attempt to sway the outcome, robotexts have emerged as a highly valued tool in the battle to win voters in this tight and divisive campaign. ABC News reported 1.1 billion political texts were sent in August, adding to 68 million election-related robocalls. 

While Republicans have sent twice as many text messages as Democrats, both parties rely on the practice as a prime way to reach voters. Democrats are purchasing phone numbers by the tens of millions, and Republicans are expected to send hundreds of millions of messages leading up to November 3. 

Robocall mitigation starts at the top.
As we near election day, we can all expect an uptick in campaign messages by phone, text and email. We can each individually do something to thwart the avalanche. For consumers, the answer could be as easy as texting STOP to opt out of unwanted messages. The FCC also offers advice to consumers on how to handle robocalls, texts and spoofing at fcc.gov/robocalls

But the root of the problem must be addressed, and that means calls need to be authenticated at the point of origination, using STIR/SHAKEN. Carriers, regulators and enforcement groups will need to continue to collaborate to ensure progress continues.

As an approved Certification Authority and co-author of the STIR certificate management standards, Neustar plays an integral role in the governance structure for the Calling Number Verification Service to mitigate illegal robocalling and call spoofing. To learn more, visit our Trusted Call Resource Center and learn about our Robocall Mitigation solution.

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