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Small companies play a big role in Robocall scourge, but remedies are elusive



Billions of illegal robots to drive Americans away are greatly facilitated by small telecom operators who broadcast Internet calls, industry officials say, but authorities are controversial over what – if anything – they can do to stop them.

These telecom operators typically charge portions of one hundred percent for a call, making their money huge. Their greater role in the robocall lifestyle has become apparent as major telecommunications companies become better at tracking robot calls to their source, which calls on regulators to hold them accountable.

"There are definitely violators who continue to appear as sources of illegal robocalls – said

Patrick Halley,

senior vice president at USTelecom, a major telecommunications company trade association that runs a robot tracking group. "Carriers who knowingly allow the generation of billions of illegal robots must be held accountable."

USA. Regulators, however, have conflicting interpretations of their ability to bring companies to court. And operators are not explicitly required to try to distinguish between legitimate and illegal call robots, further blurring implementation.

There are many legitimate applications for robots, for example, when a bank wants to alert its customers about data breaches. However, such calls are illegal when used by scammers to attract money or personal information from consumers under false pretenses, or when they enforce consumer protection rules, such as making late-night calls.

Relatively few calls labeled "high risk" that are illegal robots, 1

3% – come from numbers owned by large telecom operators, including

AT&T
Inc.,

Verizon Communications
Inc.

and

T-Mobile US
Inc.,

according to TNS Inc., which provides networking and data services to the telecommunications industry.

Instead, most of the traffic is generated by illegal rogue rollers with the help of little-known companies that have been identified by USTelecom tracing officials in the industry.

In interviews, representatives of several smaller carriers stated that it is difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal traffic of robots.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, left, and Joseph Simmons, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, testified at a May senate meeting in Washington.


Photo:

clodagh kilcoyne / Reuters

Both types of calls rely on similar technology. Legal automated calls, such as school closure and prescription notices, often use the same Internet dialing platforms that illegal workaholics abuse.

In fact, scammers use principles included in the DNA of the telephone system: It is set up to make sure that calls are made, no matter what. Carriers do not review the contents of calls before connecting them, and many companies touch each call.

The Federal Communications Commission in November sent notices to eight small telecom operators and internet-based call companies, calling for their cooperation in the fight against illegal robots

In response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, representatives of most of these companies have stated that they end suspected fraudulent calls or sever relationships with customers who misuse their services.

All eight companies acknowledged that they received requests for traceability calls from US Telecom's TraceBack Group and stated that they responded to them with details of the calls in question.

Such traces begin when the group observes a major fraud campaign and tries to follow it to its origin.

Aaron Leon,

CEO of thinQ Technologies Inc., one of the companies that received robocall tracking requests, said his company blocks numbers when it detects high volume calls per second, and responds when law enforcement or industry requests help to track a robot. [19659004] But the firm of 40 employees based in Raleigh, North Carolina, has limited resources and cannot listen to calls to find out if a scammer is dialing, he says.

"We are working very hard to try to remove it," Mr. Leon said of robot traffic. "This does not mean that people do not take advantage of our system."

Another company that said it received requests for robot tracking is R Squared Telecom LLC, based in Akron, Ohio. The company started in 2014 as an intermediary linking Philippines-based US telephone system centers, said CEO of R Squared in an interview with YouTube in January 2018.

The company knows very little about where the calls come from. "They send us calls and we don't know if it's an office of 1,000 people, each of which makes four calls a day, or if it's an office of 20 people who talk every two minutes," he said in response to a question.

R Squared said through a lawyer that he was cooperating with the call tracking efforts and "eliminated any illegal calls as soon as he found those calls illegal or even suspicious."

The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission in recent For years, both have stepped up action against robocallers, but each agency seems to have taken a relatively narrow view of its power to deal with intermediary phone companies that help generate and transmit calls, especially so-called they Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP Providers

The FCC has established limited jurisdiction over VoIP Providers, a spokesman for the agency said. For example, one-way carriers – those who make calls but do not receive them – are not subject to certain requirements. Many internet based telephone companies are set up this way.

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The FTC has broad powers to comply with fraudulent business practices, but the agency believes that some robotics intermediaries, including VoIP providers, fall outside its jurisdiction. In a recent statement to a congressional committee viewed by the magazine, the FTC cited a May 2018 lawsuit related to fraudsters for refusing to sue an internet-based phone company for "knowingly engaging in illegal robots." [19659004] The FTC's note pointed a finger at the FCC, saying that the company in question was probably a "general carrier" exclusively under the jurisdiction of the FCC.

An FCC spokesman declined to discuss specific enforcement cases, but challenged the FTC's legal interpretation, stating that the FTC has broad authority to monitor both rookie and "facilitators".

Some courts have said that carriers and call platform providers are not responsible for their customers' breaches of telephone consumer protection rules, while others have found them to be liable depending on the extent to which they have participated or know for an illegal campaign, they said

Daniel Delnero,

senior attorney at Squire Patton Boggs.

Chairman of the FCC

Ajit Pai

said that the agency "will continue its efforts to ensure that every tool is available to put an end to the scourge of robots."

Mr. Pai has been pushing major operators to implement a protocol this year to verify that a caller is allowed to use a specific number rather than 'tamper' with another number. Regulators and industry officials hope that the screening system will facilitate the detection of fraudulent activity.

Commissioner of the FCC

Jessica Rosenvosel,

Mr Pai's critic asks the agency to consider using its powers "to revoke their authorization to provide services" for companies that knowingly place unlawful distress calls on the network.

Some in the industry are considering the possibility of creating a public list of troubled companies, in part as a warning to other telecommunications operators considering whether to receive traffic from these companies in the future.

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com and Sarah Croes at sarah.krouse@wsj.com

Copyright © 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8


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