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Stopping Illegal Robocalls Where They Start

Shouldn’t Neighbor Spoofing Be Illegal? Wait! It Already Is!

We’ve all gotten used to it. The phone rings with a phone number that we don’t recognize and it isn’t in our contact list. But based on the area code, and perhaps the next few digits, it looks like the caller is down the street or across town. It could be a teacher, a doctor, the assistant soccer coach. Is somebody hurt? We better answer.

No, it’s a robocall. From Indianapolis or India; from Philadelphia or the Philippines. Not from anyplace nearby.

Callers do this because they know we’re more likely to answer the phone if we think it might be somebody we know. And the most important thing to a robocaller is to get us to answer, so they can play their spiel and, hopefully, get us to engage with them. That won’t happen if we don’t pick up.

Fraud robocallers do this routinely. For each call, their dialing software makes up a caller-ID that looks similar to the number they’re calling. Maybe we don’t answer fast enough, so we call the number back to see what we missed. The person that answers says they did NOT call us. The fraudster has managed to frustrate not just us, but the owner of the number they used as caller-ID.

Neighbor spoofing is so effective at improving answer rates that even those claiming to be making legitimate calls are doing it. The hotel chain conducting a survey, the charity looking for a donation, the debt collector. Those that specialize in these kinds of calls promote this approach. Web sites say it’s a best practice – look here and here; another says they automatically select the best area code and phone number to display. This site explains: “When we see a local number appear on our screens, we wonder if it may be someone’s number we didn’t save, if it’s the restaurant confirming a reservation, or the dry cleaning saying it’s ready to be picked up. Even a familiar-looking number creates curiosity about the call.”

The companies behind these web sites, and many more, will happily arrange for a “legitimate robocaller” to carry out this deception. But not wanting to take a page from the fraudsters’ play books, they will sell the caller a set of “local telephone numbers” just for that caller’s use. Since these dozens or hundreds or thousands of numbers belong to the caller, rather than being stolen from others, it’s all legal.

Or not.

The relevant law is the Truth In Caller-ID Act, 47 U.S. Code § 227 (e) (1). The FCC regulation implementing the law is 47 CFR § 64.1604. Both use the same language: “No person or entity … shall, with the intent … to wrongfully obtain anything of value, knowingly cause … any caller identification service to transmit or display misleading or inaccurate caller identification information….”

Isn’t that precisely what neighborhood spoofing does? The marketing web sites referenced above explain that misleading the called party into thinking the caller is local, when in fact they are not, results in increased answer rates – which is so valuable it’s worth paying for.

Many in industry have assumed that if a phone number is assigned to a caller, they are within their rights to use it as caller-ID. But the law does not say anything about to whom the number is assigned – it says the number cannot be misleading.

Some might point out that mobile phone subscribers routinely call from a location different from that indicated by their phone number. But that’s a completely different situation. When I moved from Silicon Valley to Utah, I kept my 408 California number. But I did that so my existing contacts would still be able to reach me. My intent wasn’t to trick people into answering calls that they would otherwise let roll to voicemail.

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