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Stopping Illegal Robocalls Where They Start

Should the Bell Toll for Ringless Voicemail?

Occasionally when robocalls are discussed, the subtopic of ringless voicemail comes up. This is a technology and service used primarily by marketers and debt collectors to, as the name implies, directly deposit a message into somebody’s voice-mail without first ringing their phone.

Purveyors of this service, delivered primarily by two outfits, VoApps and Stratics Networks, and resold by a number of others, have claimed in court filings and elsewhere that it is not subject to the laws regulating conventional phone calls. By my logic, that’s incorrect. Ringless voicemails are in fact delivered via calls placed over the telephone network and thus are subject to those rules. Arguments to the contrary are specious and technically incorrect.

There’s been some back-and-forth about this at the FCC, but nothing’s been decided. Actually, it’s been mostly forth. There have been a couple of requests for declaratory rulings over the years asking the FCC to rule explicitly that RVM is above the law. The FCC solicited comments most recently in 2017; the bulk of the reaction was negative. The petitioner withdrew their request (probably because they figured the ruling would go against them) and the FCC never bothered to resolve the debate.

The service is still promoted and used (just google ringless voicemail) and people still complain about it. And its legality is being contested in courts.

Given the lack of response from the FCC, the big wireless companies could address this if they were motivated to do so. For starters, they could send a letter to each of the RVM providers along these lines:

As a wireless carrier, we operate a voice-mail platform on behalf of our subscribers. Those subscribers expect that calls will divert to voicemail only when the subscriber is unreachable (for any of several reasons) or when they elect, on a call-by-call basis, to send a call there.

You promote a service called ringless voicemail, which deposits messages in our subscribers’ mailboxes contrary to this expectation. We are aware of at least two methods that can be used to access our platform to deliver said messages:

  • A call is placed to the voicemail system pilot number, and the subscriber’s mailbox number (telephone number) is conveyed to the system either as part of the initial call signaling, or immediately after the system answers the call. The calling party then plays the (usually pre-recorded) message which is captured by the system.
  • Alternatively, two calls are originated to the subscriber’s number in rapid succession. Because the network is busy processing the first call, the second call is diverted to voicemail. The caller then quickly abandons the first call; the message is left via the second call’s connection.

Other scenarios may also be used to accomplish the same result. Regardless, none are permissible. We insist that you cease and desist from making such calls and/or offering or promoting the service.

Beyond our own policies regarding this matter, we direct your attention to the following:

  1. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S. Code § 1030) stipulates criminal penalties for unauthorized access to computer systems. Your access to our voicemail platform is unauthorized and results in damage, including but not limited to congestion of our network and systems.
  2. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (47 CFR § 64.1200) prohibits at (a)(5) “Use [of] an automatic telephone dialing system in such a way that two or more telephone lines of a multi-line business are engaged simultaneously” and at (a)(6) “Disconnect[ion of] an unanswered telemarketing call prior to at least 15 seconds or four (4) rings.”
  3. The TCPA at (a)(1)(iii) prohibits initiating a call using a pre-recorded or artificial voice to a telephone number assigned to a cellular telephone service. Typically, the pilot numbers for our wireless voicemail platform are assigned to our cellular telephone service.

There may be other applicable regulations as well.

We expect and appreciate your prompt attention to this matter. We reserve the right to take further steps, including but not limited to legal action and/or blocking your calls.

Subscribers that are unhappy about receiving ringless voicemails might contact their carrier and encourage this approach (since complaining to the FCC doesn’t seem to go anywhere).

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