The Federal Communications Commission today released a plan to require mobile carriers to block a wide range of illegal text messages.
“In this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), we propose to require mobile wireless providers to block illegal text messages, building on our ongoing work to stop illegal and unwanted robocalls,” the FCC order said. “Specifically, we propose to require mobile wireless providers to block texts, at the network level, that purport to be from invalid, unallocated, or unused numbers, and numbers on a Do-Not-Originate (DNO) list.” These texts “are highly likely to be illegal,” the FCC said.
The NPRM seeks public comment on the plan. Once the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, there will be 30 days for comments and another 15 days for reply comments. After that, the FCC can draft new requirements for mobile carriers and set up a final vote.
“The American people are fed up with scam texts, and we need to use every tool we have to do something about it,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. “Recently, scam text messaging has become a growing threat to consumers’ wallets and privacy. More can be done to address this growing problem and today we are formally starting an effort to take a serious, comprehensive, and fresh look at our policies for fighting unwanted robotexts.”
In addition to seeking comment on the proposed rules, the FCC order seeks comment more generally on the problem of spoofed text messages. “We also seek comment on the extent to which spoofing is a problem with regard to text messaging today and whether there are measures the Commission can take to encourage providers to identify and block texts that appear to come from spoofed numbers,” the FCC said.
The FCC also asked for comment “on applying caller ID authentication standards to text messaging.” Caller ID authentication is already required for phone calls on the Internet Protocol portions of voice networks.
Curious vote timing for year-old item
The timing of the NPRM’s release is curious because commissioners could have voted on it any time in the past 11.5 months. The item was circulated by Rosenworcel to commissioners on October 18, 2021, according to the FCC’s list of items on circulation.
When the FCC chair circulates an item, commissioners can vote whenever they’re ready. The NPRM, “Targeting and Eliminating Unlawful Text Messages,” was the oldest one on the list of circulated items.
An Axios report today said the vote was finally concluded shortly after a reporter asked why it was taking so long. “The Federal Communications Commission approved a long-delayed proposal to crack down on spam texts Friday night after Axios asked agency members why it hadn’t moved on the issue,” the article said, noting that it “had been awaiting a vote at the FCC for nearly a year.”
The spam text NPRM was approved Friday and released publicly today. The vote was reportedly 4-0, meaning both Democrats and both Republicans approved.
We asked Rosenworcel’s office and the other commissioners today for details on when each member voted. Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks “voted on this item well before Friday,” Starks’ office told Ars.
A spokesperson for Rosenworcel said the chair’s office defers to commissioners on whether they want to disclose the timing of their votes, but also said the robotext proposal has had Rosenworcel’s “strong support” since she proposed it.
Republican FCC member Brendan Carr didn’t say when he voted, but he told Ars in an email, “This is a good item, and I’m hoping the FCC moves quickly to an order on it. I can tell you that I was not dragging [my] feet on it.”
It’s not clear when Republican Nathan Simington cast a vote. We’ll update this article if we get new information on the vote timing. The FCC still lacks a Democratic majority due to Senate inaction on Biden nominee Gigi Sohn.
Robotexts a big and growing problem
Complaints about spam texts are rising. The NPRM said the FCC “received approximately 14,000 consumer complaints about unwanted text messages, representing an almost 146 percent increase from the number of complaints the year before.” Complaints rose to 15,300 in 2021, and 8,500 in the first six months of 2022.
“Unwanted text messages present the same problems as unwanted calls—they invade consumer privacy, and are vehicles for consumer fraud and identity theft,” the FCC said.
Robocalls are still a bigger problem in terms of overall complaints, but the FCC noted that text message-based scams present some additional harms not seen with robocalls. The NPRM described how spam texts use phishing and malware to scam victims:
Texts can include links to well-designed phishing websites that appear identical to the website of a legitimate company and fool a victim into providing personal or financial information. Texted links can also load unwanted software, including malware that steals passwords and other credentials, onto a device. Scam texts, like scam calls, may involve illegal caller ID spoofing, i.e., falsifying the caller ID information that appears on the called party’s phone with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain something of value. In 2020, scammers stole over $86 million through spam texting fraud schemes. The median amount stolen from consumers in such scams was $800.
The FCC issued a consumer alert about the rise in robotext scams on July 28. The FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee last month finalized a report on the state of text messaging, including information on the sources of illegal and unwanted text messages and tactics used by bad actors to defraud consumers.