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FCC Takes First Steps Against Scam Texts, Closes Stir/Shaken Loophole

The FCC clamped down, for the first time, on robotexts and closed what it called a loophole in Stir/Shaken rules. Both items were approved, as expected (see 2303130049 and 2303140062), by unanimous votes Thursday with minor tweaks. Neither item has been posted.

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Wireless customers of each provider will, for the first time, have commission-required baseline protection from certain text messages that begins to address the rising number of complaints and consumer harm” resulting “from these illegal texts,” said Alejandro Roark, chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. A Further NPRM proposes steps that could “further stem the tide of illegal and unwanted messages to American consumers,” he said. Roark said the item had a few minor tweaks since it was circulated three weeks ago.

Robotexts are “a unique threat to consumers: unlike robocalls, scam text messages are hard to ignore or hang-up on and are nearly always read by the recipient -- often immediately,” said an FCC news release.

Robotexts are “making a mess of our phones,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel: “They are reducing trust in a powerful way to communicate. So today we take our first step to stop these unwanted texts at the network level.”

Commissioner Brendan Carr said the item takes the “right targeted action” without “sweeping in” legal texts consumers may want. “Consumer protection is job one of the commission, and today we lay out tough, but fair, rules in furtherance of that mission,” said Commissioner Nathan Simington.

We build upon our experience combating robocalls, and today move to protect consumers from the threat of illegal or harmful robotexts,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. Robotexts are a growing issue and last year Americans received more than 225 billion robotexts, he noted.

We support the FCC’s engagement on this issue and appreciate their collaboration to ensure that the rules better reflect the messaging ecosystem and avoid unnecessary confusion for consumers,” emailed Scott Bergmann, CTIA senior vice president-regulatory affairs. CTIA had sought changes to the item.

The Stir/Shaken item got a few “small tweaks” with changes requested by Carr, said Trent Harkrader, chief of the Wireline Bureau.

The new rules will require intermediate providers that receive unauthenticated IP calls directly from domestic originating providers to use STIR/SHAKEN to authenticate those calls,” said the FCC robocall release: “Although STIR/SHAKEN has been widely implemented under FCC rules, some originating providers are not capable of using the framework. In other cases, unscrupulous originating providers may deliberately fail to authenticate calls.” A Further NPRM “seeks to continue to build a record on which the agency can take still further steps in the future to enhance its robocall protections for consumers,” the FCC said. The order is the sixth adopted by the FCC on Stir/Shaken.

The order closes a loophole in robocall rules, Rosenworcel said. “For some time, we have required carriers that originate and terminate calls to use technology like Stir/Shaken to prove that a caller truly is who they say they are and not a scammer using the network to further some fraud,” she said: “The intermediate providers who may help carry a call from one carrier to another never had the same consistent obligation to use call authentication technology. This was a gap in our rules, a way to let junk calls sneak into our networks and reach unassuming consumers. No more.”

Carr said he would support “any reasonable step to crack down on a robocall.” He said at some point he would like to be able to once again accept calls on his smartphone from numbers not on his contact list: “I don’t know that we’re quite there yet, but we’re working toward that day.”

The most important part of the order is “what we do to strengthen our enforcement authorities,” Starks said: “We ensure that providers follow our robocall blocking rules by setting a strong max forfeiture for each call for failure to block. We’re talking real money on a per-call basis.” The order imposes a maximum fine for each violation of the mandatory blocking requirements of $23,727 per call.

The rules “get technical fast,” Simington said. “If prohibiting illegal robocalls was easy, we would have done it long ago,” he said.

Incompas supports both items, said Christopher Shipley, executive director-public policy. "Requiring the first intermediate provider in the call path to authenticate calls addresses a significant regulatory gap -- ensuring that all providers along the call path are exchanging authenticated calls -- and will help maximize the value and effectiveness of the STIR/SHAKEN solution,” he said.

Robocalls and robotexts are a huge annoyance for everyone,” said Nick Garcia, Public Knowledge policy counsel. “It’s clear that we need strong rules to cut down on this growing problem,” he said: “We are encouraged to see the FCC adopt these rules and immediately continue on to consider some of the other proposals consumer advocates have been pushing for, like rules to prevent so-called ‘lead generators’ from using one instance of a person giving away a phone number to unleash a tidal wave of spam.”