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FCC Orders Mobile Phone Companies to Block Scam Texts

Americans received 225 billion robotexts last year, more than spam calls

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Consumer text scams have mushroomed into an epidemic. And now the government is taking a big swing at eliminating this threat.

In a unanimous decision announced March 16, the Federal Communications Commission adopted its very first rules that aim to snuff out robotexts, notably the kind that attempt to deceive consumers into clicking on links that can result in disastrous and costly outcomes. 

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The agency is requiring wireless phone carriers to block texts from illegitimate phone numbers, which can display as numbers from unused lines and landlines, and urging the companies to seek other ways to fight back.

“Scam artists have found that sending us messages about a package you never ordered or a payment that never went through along with a link to a shady website is a quick and easy way to get us to engage on our devices and fall prey to fraud,” FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “These robotexts are making a mess of our phones. They are reducing trust in a powerful way to communicate. So today we take our first step to stop these unwanted texts at the network level,” she said.

In his own statement, FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks pointed out why such text scams are frequently effective. 

“Robotexts are different than robocalls,” he said. “Recipients of a robocall have the ability to either pick up the phone or not. But on most devices, recipients of a robotext see at least some of an unwanted message immediately, exposing them [to] — and potentially luring them into — harm.”

Potential for fraud is widespread

The scam often takes the form of phishing, in which a consumer who clicks on a link is transported to what appears to be an authentic looking financial institution website but is in reality bogus. Or clicking on a text link may surreptitiously install malware on an unwitting victim’s device.

spinner image a scam text message
This scam text about a Netflix account was sent after the FCC adopted its rules.

The FCC reports a more than 500 percent increase in text scam complaints in recent years and says that from 2015 to 2022 robotext complaints rose from around 3,300 to 18,900 annually. 

Americans received more than 225 billion robotexts in 2022, more than four times what they saw in 2020, according to Robokiller, a technology company that fights spam. That compares with more than 78 billion spam calls, up from almost 55 billion in 2020.

The CTIA, the industry association for mobile carriers, supports the FCC on protecting consumers from illegal and unwanted text messages, according to a statement from Scott Bergmann, senior vice president of regulatory affairs. The organization welcomes partnering with the agency to enforce laws against what it calls “bad actors.”

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Look for warning signs of fraudulent texts

“Cybersecurity implications of these new rules are considerable, particularly for older adults who may be more susceptible to scams,” Julie Davila, a Virginia-based field chief technology officer at the Oxford, U.K., global cybersecurity firm Sophos, told AARP in an email. But she warned that “they do not eliminate the threat. Older adults should remain cautious, avoid interacting with suspicious texts and report any scams they encounter.”

Beyond suspect or mysterious links, warning signs of fraudulent texts, or smishing as they’re sometimes called, include misspellings, 10-digit or longer phone numbers, sales pitches and misleading or incomplete information.

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Will the new rules have teeth?

How effective the FCC’s action will be isn’t entirely clear.

“Enforceability of these new rules depends on the cooperation of mobile service providers in implementing blocking mechanisms and the ability to identify potentially illegal robotexts accurately,” Davila says. “It’s also important to consider that spam messages are present across other messaging platforms like Messenger, WhatsApp or even iMessage, and the new rules don’t explicitly cover these platforms.”

What’s more, spammy phone calls haven’t gone away despite government rules to combat them.

The FCC is soliciting comments from the public on further proposals to require providers to block texts from entities that the FCC has cited as illegal robotexters. It also wants to clarify that Do-Not-Call Registry protections, which are supposed to prohibit marketing messages to registered numbers, apply to text messaging as well. And it hopes to close a loophole that “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.”

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