Small companies play a big role in Robocall Scourge, but instruments are elusive

The billions of illegal robocalls that flood Americans are largely facilitated by small telecommunications operators transmitting calls over the Internet, industry officials say, but authorities are at odds with what they – if anything – can do to stop them.

These telecom operators typically charge fractions of one percent per call, earning the money at high volume. Their big role in robocall scams has become apparent as large telecommunications companies are getting better at tracking robocalls to their source, encouraging regulators to hold them accountable.

“There are definitely repeated offenders who are constantly emerging as sources of illegal sources. robocalls, ”said

Patrick Halley,

a senior vice president at USTelecom, a trade association for large telecom companies that runs a robocall tracing group. "Carriers that knowingly allow the origin of billions of illegal robocalls should be held accountable."

U.S. regulators, however, have conflicting interpretations of their ability to take companies to justice. And carriers are not explicitly required to try to distinguish between legal and illegal robocalls, to further clear enforcement.

There are many legitimate uses for robocalls, such as when a bank wants to notify customers of a data breach. However, such calls are illegal when used by scammers to solicit money or personal information from consumers under false pretenses, or when they release consumer protection rules such as calling late at night.

Relatively few calls labeled as "high risk" Being illegal robocalls ̵[ads1]1; 13% – originally from the number owned by major telecommunications companies, including


Verizon Communications


T-Mobile USA

according to TNS Inc., which provides networks and data services to the telecom industry.

Instead, most of the traffic is generated by illegal callers with the help of little-known companies identified in traceback searches by USTelecom, industry officials say.

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

Ajit Pai, head of the Federal Communications Commission, on the left, and Joseph Simons, head of the Federal Trade Commission, testified at a hearing in the Washington Senate in May.


clodagh kilcoyne / Reuters

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

In reality, scammers exploit principles linked to the telephone system's DNA: It is set up to make calls come through, no matter what. Carriers do not look at the content of calls until they connect, and several companies touch each call.

In November, the Federal Communications Commission sent alerts to eight small telecommunications and internet-based calling companies that called for cooperation to combat illegal robocalls.

Responding to questions from The Wall Street Journal, representatives of most of these companies said they had concluded suspicion of fraud or damage ties with customers who abuse their services.

All eight companies acknowledged receiving requests for calls from US Telecom's TraceBack Group and said they were responding to them with details of the calls in question.

Such traces usually start when the group observes a major fraud campaign and tries to follow it back 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 a high volume of calls per second, and responds when attorney or industry officials ask for help tracking a robocall. [19659004] But the 40-employee firm, based in Raleigh, NC, has limited resources and can't listen to calls to discern if a scammer is calling, he said.

"We're working very hard to try to eliminate it, Leon said about robot driving." That doesn't mean people aren't taking advantage of our system. "

Another company that said it received track development requests was R Squared Telecom LLC, based in Akron, Ohio, launched in 2014 as an intermediary connecting Philippines-based telephone exchanges to the US telephone system, said an R Squared leader in a YouTube interview posted in January 2018. [19659004] The company knows little about where the calls come from. "They send us calls, and we don't know if there is an office with 1,000 people each taking four calls a day, or whether there is an office of 20 people calling every two minutes , "he said in response to a question.

R Squared, through a lawyer, cooperates with attempts to track illegal conversations and" weed out any illegal conversations as soon as it determines such conversations are illegal or even suspicious. . "[19659004] The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission have both stepped up actions against callers in recent years, but each agency seems to have adopted a relatively narrow view of its authority to go after intermediary telephone companies that help set up and transfer calls, especially so-called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP providers.

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

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The FTC has broad authority to follow deceptive business practices, but the agency believes some robocall providers, including VoIP providers, fall outside its jurisdiction. In a recent note to a congressional committee, seen by the journal, the FTC cites a May 2018 enforcement action related to fraud callers in which it refused to sue an Internet-based telephone company "for its knowledge of participating in the illegal robocalls." [19659004] The FTC note pointed the finger at the FCC, saying that the company in question was probably a "regular carrier" exclusively under the FCC's jurisdiction.

A spokesman for the FCC declined to discuss specific enforcement cases, but disputed the FTC's legal interpretation, saying the FTC has broad authority to follow both robocallers and "middlemen who facilitate them."

Some courts have stated that carriers and call platform providers are not responsible for their client's violations of the telephone consumer protection rules, while others have found them responsible depending on the extent to which they were involved in or knew of an illegal campaign,

Daniel Delnero,

senior attorney at Squire Patton Boggs.

FCC Chairman

Ajit Pai

said the agency "will continue our efforts to ensure that every tool is available to end the robocalls scourge."

Mr. Pai is pushing the largest carriers to implement a protocol this year to confirm that a caller has the right to use a given number, instead of "forging" another's number. Regulators and industry officials hope the verification system will make it easier to detect unpleasant activity.

FCC Commissioner

Jessica Rosenworcel,

a critic of Mr. Pai, wants the agency to consider using its authority "to revoke their authorization to provide services" for companies that knowingly allow illegal torment to call the network.

Some in the industry are considering the possibility of creating a public list of problem companies, partly as a warning to other telecom operators who are considering whether they will accept traffic from these companies in the future.

Write to Ryan Tracy at and Sarah Krouse at

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

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