Robocalls have been cut in half, but a study shows robotexts have skyrocketed

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A consumer watchdog offers tips on what consumers can do to protect themselves

The U.S. is coming up on the first anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) effort to make telecoms fight robocalls. The result of those efforts has been consumers receiving nearly half of the scam robocalls they were getting in 2021. Unfortunately, it seems that scammers have adapted and are trying to scam consumers with another method.

In a new report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, experts say scammers are now relying more on spam text messages to steal consumers’ personal information and money. The group says spam texts have increased from 1 billion to 12 billion a month in the last year, with many of those riding on the wave of smishing scams.

“Too often, we hear stories about elderly people who lose their life savings after responding to someone they think is from their bank,” said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. ”I’d like to see regulators, lawmakers and executives from phone companies explain to each family why they haven’t done more to help their grandma or grandpa.”

Following new rules

The report states that U.S. carriers’ responses to the FCC’s new rules have been mixed. More than 1,900 carriers have installed the industry-standard STIR/SHAKEN technology, up from 536 companies last year. However, more than 3,000 have yet to install STIR/SHAKEN but claim to be using their own robocall mitigation system. Another 1,002 companies claim that they are exempt from the requirements, with almost all of them noting that they’re intermediate providers that don’t originate or complete calls.

“I’ve focused on scam robocalls for 15 years and can’t believe we haven’t made more progress,” Murray said. “The FCC approves new rules, Congress passes new laws, yet we still have more than a billion scam robocalls and 12 times as many robotexts a month. Americans deserve better enforcement, and corporations need to take their share of responsibility.”

There’s a silver lining, albeit small

While the FCC may not have been expecting robotexts to rise this much, there is some optimism surrounding how the agency has cracked down on scammers. For example, the agency has targeted “gateway” providers that funnel scam calls from overseas and smaller providers that were originally exempt from the new rules but must now comply with them. Murray says more still needs to be done, including allowing public access to “traceback” data that shows which companies originate or allow scam robocalls on their lines. 

“Research shows that 80 percent of us generally don’t answer calls from an unknown number,” Murray said.

“If these crimes were occurring in the physical world, rather than over the telephone and internet, law enforcement would not hesitate to arrest the thieves and their helpers to stop them from stealing. The FCC should provide the same level of protection to American telephone subscribers,” the National Consumer Law Center said in its own status report on robocalls.

Protecting yourself

The U.S. PIRG says there are 18 different ways consumers can protect themselves from being scammed by a robocaller or robotexter. Three of its best suggestions include:

Don’t ever pay bills or debts with gift cards. “Gift cards are for gifts or to make a purchase for yourself. No legitimate operation accepts gift cards to pay for an obligation -- not the Internal Revenue Service or a jail or a bank,” the organization says.

On your outbound voicemail message, don’t provide your full name. The organization says consumers shouldn’t give scammers more information than they already have.

If you have a voicemail box with your phone line, set up a password. “Some voicemail services give access to messages if you call from your own phone number,” Murray advises. “But if an identity thief spoofs your number and there’s no password, they potentially could access your messages and personal information.”

Murray says consumers should also focus on helping each other to avoid scams.

“Vow to do more to protect your friends and relatives, especially the most vulnerable. We should occasionally strike up conversations with loved ones about scams that are out there and make sure those we care about know they can talk to us if there’s ever a question about a call or text message they received,” she said. “And we should never belittle people who fall for scams. We need to eliminate the stigma so people feel free to reach out for help.”

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