FCC Takes Aim at Scam Text Messaging

By: Andrew Regitsky

On September 27, 2022, the FCC decided to act against scam text messaging. It released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in Docket 21-402 in which it proposes new rules to fight back against “malicious robotext campaigns.” The agency invites public comment on ideas to apply caller ID authentication standards to text messaging and require providers to find and actively block illegal texts before they get to consumers. Comments will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register. Reply comments will be due 15 days later.

The FCC notes that illegal texts are becoming an increased problem for consumers.

In 2020, the Commission received approximately 14,000 consumer complaints about unwanted text messages, representing an almost 146 percent increase from the number of complaints the year before. The Commission has received 15,300 consumer complaints about unwanted texts in 2021 and 8,500 such complaints through June 30, 2022. While these numbers are lower than the complaints the Commission receives about unwanted calls, when compared to the total number of text messages exchanged each year, the increase is evidence of an emerging problem. Other data suggest the same. (NPRM, at para. 3).

Unwanted texts cause similar problems as unwanted voice calls since they violate consumer privacy and can jump-start consumer fraud and identity theft. They also cause additional problems:

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.(Id., at para. 4).

To stop illegal text messages, the Commission proposes to extend some of its consumer protections against illegal phone calls to text messages.

Mandatory Blocking of Illegal Texts – Like its approach to call blocking, the Commission proposes to require mobile wireless providers to block text messages at the network level (i.e., without consumer opt in or opt out) that purport to be from invalid, unallocated, or unused numbers, and numbers on the Do Not Originate (DNO) list. These texts are highly likely to be illegal.

Applying Caller ID Authentication Requirements to Text Messages – In order to facilitate blocking for certain types of illegal texts, the Commission seeks comment on whether to require providers to implement the STIR/SHAKEN caller ID authentication for text messages. This system was developed for calls and currently a working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is currently considering a draft standard regarding application of some components of the STIR/SHAKEN framework to text messages. The Commission asks the industry when this work will be completed. What timeline should it establish for implementation that accounts for the time needed both to finish standards and for providers to perform any necessary network upgrades? Would two years be sufficient time to complete standards development and implement necessary technology? Should it instead require providers to implement caller ID for text messages when technically feasible, without setting a time-certain deadline?

Other Actions – The FCC asks whether there are ways it can enhance its spam text message consumer education outreach and content? Are there roles advisory committees such as its Consumer Advisory Committee and the North American Numbering Council (NANC) could play in further educating consumers? The agency seeks comment on whether text messages are more likely to be trusted than a call; if so, are there practices consumers and companies can adopt to maintain trust in text messages and to ensure they remain an effective tool for communication? It asks how it can educate consumers regarding these practices.

Summing up the importance of this proceeding, the FCC estimates that the blocking of illegal texts would achieve an annual benefit floor of $6.3 billion. And with illegal texts increasing dramatically each year, the Commission calls this a conservative estimate!