Why a $120 Million Fine Will Do Nothing to Stop Robocalls

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is doing a victory lap after slapping a $120 million fine on Adrian Abramovic for his role in 97 million robocalls placed over a three-month period in 2016. It’s the biggest fine on record for the bothersome calls, but it’s also pure political posturing.

The number of calls Abramovic oversaw sounds impressive, until you learn that last month alone there were 3.36 billion robocalls placed. Using those numbers, the monthly calls from Abramovic constitute less than 3% of the total robocalls being made today.

On average, there are 1,297 robocalls placed per second in the United States. (“Pam, from account services” is apparently a very busy woman.) And the number has risen been on a sharp increase for the past few months. Total calls in December 2017 were just 2.78 billion, according to YouMail, which tracks robocalls.

Why the surge? In part because the calls work. Some are legitimate, reminding people of an upcoming appointment or that a prescription has been filled. The majority are scams, though. And people running them can cast a much wider net with robocalls than boiler rooms full of humans. They, in essence, act as catnip for the naive, and bring those people to them.

The calls also frequently use spoofed numbers, generally with a local area code, to seem authentic. And because those numbers are spoofed (and change frequently), it’s harder for people to block them.

People hate robocalls, though. In 2017, the FTC received 7.1 million complaints about telemarketers, with 4.5 million of those being robocalls. Both numbers are more than twice the 2015 totals.

So while Pai might say “our decision sends a loud and clear message: this FCC is an active cop on the beat and will through the book at anyone who violates our spoofing and robocall rules and harms consumers,” don’t expect robocall companies to shut down operations or quake in their boots.

After all, even the courts seem to be on their side. In March, an appeals court judge overturned a portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The bill, which officials hoped would curb the use of automated dialers (a primary tool of robocalls), was found to be too broadly defined.

The number of calls spiked after that ruling, jumping from 98 million a day in February to just under 102 million per day in March.

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