FCC Cracks Down on Scam Text Messages for the First Time

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
March 17, 2023Science & Techshare
FCC Cracks Down on Scam Text Messages for the First Time
An example of a text message scam is shown in this photo. (screenshot NTD)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took its first-ever steps to crack down on text-message scams this week, imposing new regulations on mobile phone service providers.

Under the new FCC rules announced Thursday, mobile service providers are required to block certain robotext messages that are considered “highly likely to be illegal.” These likely-illegal text messengers come from invalid, unallocated, or unused numbers, numbers individuals mark as never sending text messages, and numbers that government agencies and other well-known entities identify as not used for texting.

An additional FCC rule requires mobile wireless providers to “establish a point of contact for text senders, or have providers require their aggregator partners or blocking contractors to establish such a point of contact, which senders can use to inquire about blocked texts.”

The FCC is further proposing requirements for mobile service providers to block texts from entities the FCC has already cited as illegal robotexters. One idea the FCC is considering would apply the “Do Not Call Registry” to text messages, blocking messengers from using either method of communication to contact people on that restricted list.

The FCC has another proposal to close down what it called the “lead generator loophole,” which allows multiple marketing firms to deliver robocalls and text messages based on a single instance of a consumer’s consent to receive marketing messages. The regulatory agency said this “lead generator loophole” allows companies to “use a single consumer consent to deliver robocalls and text messages from multiple—perhaps thousands—of marketers on subjects that may not be what the consumer had in mind.”

Robotext Complaints Growing

The new FCC rules and proposals against scam texts come as consumers have expressed increased concern over robotexts.

According to the FCC, there has been a more than 500 percent increase in robotext complaints in recent years. Such complaints reportedly rose from about 3,300 in 2015 to about 18,900 in 2022.

According to Robokiller, a firm that provides scam-blocking services, there were more than 225 billion robotexts received in the United States in 2022. That number marks a 157 percent year-over-year increase, and a 307 percent increase from 2020. Robokiller estimates that consumers lost more than $20 billion as a result of robotext scams in 2022.

“Robotexts pose a unique threat to consumers,” the FCC said. “Unlike robocalls, scam text messages are hard to ignore or hang-up on and are nearly always read by the recipient—often immediately. In addition, robotexts can promote links to phishing websites or websites that can install malware on a consumer’s phone.”

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

Rosenworcel said the new FCC rules have the support of Attorneys General from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Potential Privacy Implications

While the new FCC rules are ostensibly aimed at curbing a rise in scam text messages, the portion of the new FCC rule that requires wireless providers to “establish a point of contact for text senders” may impact the privacy of phone users who wish to maintain their anonymity.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has raised concerns about law enforcement agencies using cell-site simulators, also known as “Stingrays,” to track people attending protests through their phones.

In a 2020 article, The Intercept described using a pre-paid phone service—with a carrier that doesn’t require personal identification—as a way of maintaining anonymity at protest events. The FCC’s rule requiring a point of contact for each text sender could potentially eliminate the anonymity afforded to protesters who use pre-paid phone services.

NTD News reached out to several digital privacy advocates for comment, but they did not respond before this article was published.

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