Robocalls & Politics: A Dangerous Combination for Enterprise Voice Networks

By Chuck French on 10/13/20

Executive Summary

If it feels like you’re getting an increasing number of spam calls over the past few weeks, it’s not your imagination.

Robocalls (recorded messages delivered through auto-dialers) are back on the rise, due in large part to the fact that call centers temporarily shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis are resuming activity, generating 3.8 Billion robocalls in September alone.

In this article we examine the history, relationship and impact of Political Robocalls, and how some organizations are defending their voice networks from the fray.

Ultimately, it is clear, US regulations have left a window open for political calls and the limited protections that do exist are for the consumer and not for business.

Introduction

If it feels like you’re getting an increasing number of spam calls over the past few weeks, it’s not your imagination. Robocalls (recorded messages delivered through auto-dialers) are back on the rise, due in large part to the fact that call centers temporarily shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis are resuming activity, generating 3.8 Billion robocalls in September alone.

However, the upcoming, high-stakes election also means robocallers are going into hyperdrive as local, state, and national campaigns vie to capture voter attention with their messaging. According to the nation’s leading robocall-blocking service, Nomorobo, the number of robocalls related to campaign messaging spiked 30% in September and is expected to continue on that trajectory right up until Election Day. 

Federal Regulations are Limited When it Comes to Politics

While federal regulators have recently passed legislation, known as the TRACED Act, to curb robocalls and other forms of unwanted phone spam, when applied against campaign-related calls, those regulations hold little authority, affecting only calls to mobile devices or protected/emergency phone lines. Specifically, as stated by the Federal Communications System (FCC) page on Political Campaign Robocalls and Robotexts:

“Political campaign-related autodialed or prerecorded voice calls (including autodialed live calls, prerecorded voice messages, and text messages) are:

  • Not allowed to cell phones, pagers, or other mobile devices without the called party’s prior express consent.
  • Not allowed to protected phone lines such as emergency or toll-free lines, or lines serving hospitals or similar facilities, unless made with the called party’s prior express consent.
  • Allowed when made to landline telephones, even without prior express consent.”

Which means your cell phone, which you can choose to ignore, has some protection against political robocall intrusions, but your business line, which you should not ignore, does not. And each call ringing through creates another workflow disruption that cumulatively, organization-wide, adds up to thousands of hours of lost productivity and real damage to a company’s bottom line.

The question, then, is why are campaign-related robocalls protected from federal regulation while others are not? If you are a skeptic, the answer might seem obvious: Politicians are not going to pass legislation that limits their campaign outreach potential. However, it is a bit more nuanced than that and an issue that has been debated for more than a decade.

Political Robocalls: a Threat to Democracy?

In 2009, author Jason C. Miller wrote an essay for the University of  Michigan Law School Review titled “Are Automated Calls the Sound of, or a Threat to, Democracy?

In it, he explains how the emergence of low-cost VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone call technology in the mid-90’s gave rise to the mass, auto-dial spam call industry. While consumers at the time lobbied for more protective legislation against robocall abuse, Miller suggests that Congress chose not to apply laws curbing campaign-related robocalls out of  “fear that they violate free speech protections.”

Justification was found in the presumption that a ban on political robocalls would disproportionately affect candidates without large campaign war chests. After all, robocalls are far cheaper than broadcast television or mailings. “While robocalls are annoying to the rich and poor alike, banning them will limit poor candidates and increase the price of ‘get out the vote’ operations,” notes Miller. “Such limitations may ultimately hurt voter turnout among minorities and those below the poverty line.” Those same arguments apply today. In other words, says Miller,  “Class conflicts are as old as the republic itself.”

Even for those who view political robocalls as little more than a mild annoyance, that attitude changes dramatically when those calls tip into the insidious spread of excessively negative or deceptive messaging. And if you think that is a recent phenomenon, think again. Miller cites numerous examples from the early 2000s of “the good” (campaign messaging and polling), “the bad” (nasty, negative campaigning), and “the ugly” (designed to suppress votes). His examples including calls impersonating an opponent in order to misrepresent their views; those delivering confusing or intimidating messages meant to inhibit voting; and those designed to deliberately annoy call recipients in the name of the opposing party. Sound familiar? Check out Nomorobo’s page of “Featured 2020 Election Robocalls” for some campaign 2020 examples.

Political Robocalls…a Google Search Away

To be clear, legitimate campaign communicators must adhere to FCC guidelines for self-identity and truthful content or risk significant fines. But that does not stop rogue individuals or unscrupulous organizations from using readily-accessible auto-dialer services to deliver their messages. A quick  Google search for “Campaign Robocalls”  brings up a plethora of services offering enticements such as “Send Pre-Recorded Robocalls starting at 1 cent per call”… “Up to date, reliable voter data including full name, address, precinct, political affiliation, age, gender, demographic, education, for just 3 cents/record”… “Reach thousands of voters in minutes”… and “Hide Your Real Number” – better known as call spoofing. These services are perfectly legal, but some of their users may not be.

And it’s not just votes that are at stake.

Politics, a Boon to Malicious Callers

On September 10, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported through its “Scam Tracker” service a significant upswing in robocall scammers posing as campaign fundraisers. The pre-recorded political robocall message presents as a supporter from the recipient’s political party with an urgent message to contribute or else risk an election loss. If the call recipient agrees, they are transferred to a live person in a call center who takes their credit card information. Unwitting victims, anxious to support their favorite candidates, are easy targets for this con and are being duped not only out of their contribution dollars but also their personal information which can then be used for identity theft.

It is no surprise that during a time of heightened political tensions people are more susceptible to such tactics. For companies, this also is a warning sign that scammers may be finding easy entry into enterprise voice networks and protected company information through employee-targeted “vishing” calls disguised as seemingly trustworthy candidate appeals. Once the employee trust is gained, experienced scammers are able to extract otherwise protected information that, in many cases, has resulted in significant security breaches and business losses.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), this risk is now heightened due to the unique vulnerabilities of a largely remote workforce operating outside of the established security boundaries of an office environment. On August 20, the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released a joint alert, “Cyber  Criminals Take Advantage of Increased Telework  Through  Vishing Campaign,” warning companies of the growing threat of cyber attacks on their remote workers.

Organizations Can Take Back Control

If all of this sounds like a lot of stress and disruption for companies that need, now more than ever, to maximize the security of their operations and the efficiency of their workforces, it is. What’s more, there is little government regulators can do to help. No doubt, it is time for enterprises to take back control of their voice networks and the performance-sucking, cybersecurity-threatening, employee productivity-killing influences riding through on their voice traffic.

In 2019, a new software solution hit the market to solve the issue of robocalls.  What makes this technology so powerful is that it actually blocks unwanted calls before they enter the voice network.  By stopping robocalls, spoof calls, vishing calls and spam calls from entering the voice network, organizations get immediate and lasting relief from Political Calls and more. The solution:  The Voice Spam Filter, from Mutare.

Vaporize Robocalls: The Voice Spam Filter

Mutare, an Illinois-based enterprise telecommunications software developer with a 30-year track record advancing technology solutions for complex business communication problems, was early to recognized the real threat of voice spam intrusion in enterprise voice networks and developed this powerful spam blocking solution in response.  It is a multi-level, enterprise-grade spam filter system specifically designed to identify and block robocalls, voice spam, spoof callers, vishing calls and scammers at the network edge, before the call has a chance to ring through.

The Mutare Voice™ Spam Filter applies a wide spectrum of spam-detecting and blocking capabilities to incoming enterprise phone calls, filtering calls through a dynamic database of known spam numbers in combination with enterprise-specific blocklists and allowlists.  Suspect spoof numbers are also flagged through Mutare’s sophisticated spoof detection analytics system and can be diverted to another resource, such as the Spam Filter Voice CAPTCHA which separates auto-generated calls from humans.

Through simple web-based settings, enterprise systems administrators assume full control over how their system handles known and suspect spam and robocalls, with numerous testing and tuning safeguards available to assure only unwanted calls are actively blocked. 

Once in place, the Mutare Voice Spam Filter delivers a significant and immediate reduction in the amount of unwanted calls entering the enterprise network, paying back many times over in improved productivity and reduced cybersecurity risk.

No doubt the 2020 election will be over soon, but robocall and spam activity is certain to continue, and there is only one sure way to protect your enterprise and employees.

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