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FCC proposes first major fine against robocaller faking consumer phone numbers

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Robocalls have become a scourge in recent years, and they’ve only grown worse since callers figured out how to fake consumers’ phone numbers, making a call appear to come from somewhere near you. No one’s had much luck stopping them, but the FCC is finally close to issuing a fine against someone using this tactic.

The commission announced today that it’s proposing a $37.5 million fine against a company based in Arizona that allegedly made 2.3 million telemarking calls under false phone numbers. One woman whose phone number was used said she ended up getting five calls per day on her cellphone from people complaining about being spammed.

This robocall campaign started in 2016 and ran for 14 months, according to the commission. Some calls are also said to have come from unassigned numbers or numbers from burner phones, which would also violate caller ID laws, because the actual caller’s name and number were hidden.

The FCC says this is its “first major enforcement action against a company that apparently commandeered consumers’ phone numbers.”

For now, the fine remains a proposal, which the accused company will have a chance to fight or settle. The calls were said to be made by a company named Affordable Enterprises as a way to sell home remodeling services.

In addition to proposing the fine against Affordable Enterprises, the FCC is also finalizing another robocalling fine today. This one is against a specific telemarketer who was selling health insurance. The commission is fining him $82 million for making 21 million calls. Those calls were also spoofed to show fake numbers, but they relied on unassigned phone numbers, instead of numbers currently in use.

These fines could help to deter other bad actors, but ultimately, they won’t be enough. Many robocalls now originate overseas, limiting what the FCC can do to fight them. Instead, the commission has been leaning on phone and tech companies to help out by giving them leeway to block calls that appear to be coming from spammers. Though at least so far, that obviously hasn’t been enough either.