The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a one-day summit Thursday on the topic of robocalls.
“Robocalls: All the Rage” covered the whole gamut of robocalling-related topics, from the formative days of telephonic technology, to the rise of VoIP, to the laws regarding robocalls, to the call-blocking technology available today, among many others. While there were many takeaways, the message for lead generators using robocalls was clear: the FTC is working hard to find you.
The majority of the discussion regarding lead generators and their place in the robocalling ecosystem came during the third session of the day, “The Law: What is the law surrounding robocalls? How is it enforced? What are the limitations and challenges? What does all of this mean for consumers?” During the Q&A portion, Will Maxson, program manager for Do Not Call enforcement for the FTC and one of the panelists, answered a question on why “Rachel” is still calling consumers and why enforcement is so challenging. (If you’re happily unfamiliar with Rachel, see this video on the poster child of robocalling.)
In response to this question, Maxson talked about how easy it is for lead generators to use robocalling for their gain. He pointed out that all a lead generator needs to get started is a computer, Internet connection and autodialer. Startup costs for lead generators looking to get into the robocalling game are essentially zero. After all, they don’t need a private branch exchange (PBX), copper lines or even a phone.
By sending calls via autodialers to telephone networks across the country, lead generators who can successfully deceive even a small percentage of people who end up listening will make money. Lead generators are just trying to find consumers for products or services that are often going to be scams, Maxson added.
“Qualifying” a lead by way of robocalls isn’t too intricate: If the recipient of a robocall presses “1” to talk with a representative, they’ll speak with someone who might ask questions to qualify the consumer. However, sometimes these qualifiers (who could be the lead generator) will just hang up on the unwitting consumer, satisfied with the pressing of a button as an indication of interest and a green light for adding the phone number to a hot list.
What makes these lead generators hard to find, according to Maxson, is the fact that they can be based anywhere and can move anywhere, and they can easily spoof phone numbers.
Nevertheless, Maxson discussed how the FTC works to find the “bad guys.” Here’s a rundown of the main points he touched on:
- The FTC starts with the consumer complaints they receive. Though phone numbers and names displayed on caller ID systems might be fake, complaints can still be brought together and trends can be seen. “We use those complaints to find the bad guys,” Maxson said.
- Tracing who pays whom enables the FTC to shut down companies that are paid in these schemes. Once a company is shut down, their documents can be searched, which can yield information such as who was generating leads for them, who was autodialing, etc.
- Though tracing calls back through the network is difficult, the FTC has another source of readily available information: former employees. The “bad guys” often mistreat their employees, according to Maxson. These miffed employees contact the FTC with extremely valuable information.
Maxson added that the FTC targets the robocallers responsible for the most calls and looks at the complaints it receives every day, always putting things in context – e.g., do they have informants, are they in the U.S., what kind of calls are they, what’s the volume, are they stealing money from people?
“It takes time, but we can find them,” Maxson said.
On Thursday, the FTC also revealed that they’ve set up a “honeypot” with a significant number of phone numbers across the country. These numbers will answer robocalls, record them and use this evidence to find offenders faster, according to Maxson.
The FTC doesn’t intend to fight this battle alone: At the end of the summit, David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, announced the “FTC Robocall Challenge.” In short, the challenge offers a $50,000 cash reward to the individual, team or company (with fewer than 10 people) that can develop a technical solution that will substantially reduce the number of illegal robocalls consumers get, both on their landline and mobile phones.
“We are calling on you – college students, doctoral candidates, Ph.D.s, all of the above – to go out and try to design a new system that will block illegal robocalls but will let permissible robocalls through,” Vladeck said.
He added that this was the first time the FTC has engaged in this kind of grant activity.
All competitors will be given access to the FTC’s data on complaints about robocalls, dating back to June 2008, with new information available every two weeks. Personal information will be redacted from this data.
“You will be a national hero,” Vladeck said to the future winner of the challenge.
By Jason Hahn