Everybody in the USA knows that scam robocalls are a big problem. Fewer Americans are aware that their news media does a woeful job of explaining the roots of the problem or how they might be tackled. Journalists are failing to hold government agencies or big businesses to account for bad ideas and flawed execution. The result is that ordinary people continue to be plagued by scams that could have been prevented by straightforward policy changes that US politicians seemingly refuse to countenance. Alternative mitigations now being implemented in other countries are never discussed by the US press. Worse still, the mainstream media does not even perform the most basic independent validation of the ‘facts’ they present to the public. The following example is drawn from USA Today, the most widely-circulated newspaper in the country. It illustrates the deep-seated complacency that surrounds the reporting of robocall scams and how to mitigate them.
‘Stop scam calls:’ What the federal government is doing to halt illegal robocalls
This is the headline from a USA Today article which was published on July 19. The first question to ask ourselves is: when did journalists start thinking it was their job to uncritically repeat the content of government press releases? It makes sense to run a story in response to a government press release, but balanced reportage requires at least a few sentences representing different opinions, or challenging the veracity of government claims. You will find none of that in this article.
Federal authorities said they are ramping up their war on phone scammers with a new campaign intended to make it harder for fraudsters to contact everyday Americans.
Under the effort, known as Operation Stop Scam Calls, the Federal Trade Commission says it has already cracked down on five companies accused of scamming millions of Americans in robocall and telemarketing schemes, resulting in millions in fines and bans that forbid the companies from making similar calls in the future.
In summary, Operation Stop Scam Calls might as well have been called Operation New Press Release. The entirety of this ‘operation’ can be summarized as follows:
- Federal agencies and prosecutors make promises to do things they already promised to do before.
- Prosecutors seek praise for taking legal action against five rogue businesses although it is their job to take legal action against lawbreakers.
- Literally nobody points out how the things now being done to ‘crack down’ on scam calls are much like the things that have previously been done to ‘crack down’ on scam calls, begging the question why anyone should believe the results will be better this time.
USA Today proceeds to provide readers with a basic understanding of the issue.
What are scam calls?
More than 33 million scam robocalls a day are made to Americans, according to the National Consumer Law Center and Electronic Privacy Information Center.
This figure is unreliable, as evident from the information published by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). But nobody at the NCLC, EPIC, nor anyone working in the press has seemingly ever questioned the faulty maths used to produce this statistic.
The statistic is taken from a June 2022 NCLC/EPIC report entitled “Scam Robocalls: Telecom Providers Profit”. The lawyers who wrote this report are considered experts who exercise outsize influence on government agencies. But I prefer experts who do not cite bogus statistics. Expertise begins with a desire to present accurate information, not with the vain pursuit of press coverage. The executive summary of the NCLC/EPIC report prominently repeats the same figure, so they obviously believe it has some significance.
Every month well over one billion scam robocalls — calls to defraud telephone subscribers — are made to American telephones. This is more than 33 million scam robocalls every day.
Now let us examine how the figure was calculated, as detailed in footnote 5 of their own report.
According to estimates from YouMail, since 2018, no fewer than 45.87 billion robocalls have been sent to American phones in a calendar year, with no fewer than 37% and as many as 46% of these calls representing scam robocalls. Dividing this minimum annual number by 12 to approximate a monthly average, and assuming the minimum estimated percentage of 37%, our conservative estimate is that more than 1.4 billion scam robocalls are made to American phones every month.
The first thing you will notice is that their own footnote contradicts the statistic they published in the body of the report. 1.4 billion scam robocalls per month is much more than 33 million scam robocalls per day. The figure of 33 million per day presumably comes from rounding 1.4 billion down to 1 billion. That is a 29 percent reduction to the statistic just because of a really clumsy application of rounding to a number that had only been stated to two significant figures before the rounding occurred. Even using the ‘conservative’ method described by the NCLC and EPIC, the daily figure they should have published would be 46 million scam robocalls per day.
We can continue to examine the methods used to produce this figure, and the extent to which an educated guess is presented as if it is a reliable metric. To begin with, USA Today implied the figure was from the National Consumer Law Center and Electronic Privacy Information Center, but the reality is that they only copied numbers from YouMail, a for-profit business. I have no reason to disrespect YouMail, who seem to do a sincere job. YouMail makes more effort to be precise than most others working in the field of robocall prevention. But if a journalist uncritically repeated statistics about climate change which had been supplied by an oil company, or uncritically repeated statistics about cancer which had been supplied by a cigarette manufacturer then it would be obvious they should apply more skepticism.
The really strange thing about the 33 million-per-day statistic is that it is stated in a report published in 2022, but is most heavily influenced by a YouMail estimate published in 2018, although YouMail has subsequently reported very different numbers since. As stated in the NCLC/EPIC footnote, 37 percent is the lowest proportion of scam calls that YouMail observed between 2018 and 2021. It is also the oldest observation. The ratios reported by YouMail during those four years were as follows:
- 2018: 37 percent of robocalls were scams
- 2019: 44 percent
- 2020: 46 percent
- 2021: 42 percent
So if we used the most recent of those four ratios, then 42 percent of 46 billion calls gives us 52 million scam calls per day. Or we could get a slightly higher total by averaging these four ratios, giving us an average ratio over the period of 42.25 percent of robocalls being scams, equating to 53 million scam calls per day.
But why is USA Today repeating old YouMail figures in an article they published last week? YouMail has much more recently reported that Americans received 5 billion robocalls in May 2023, whilst also estimating just 17 percent of those calls were scams, giving a total of 870 million scam calls during the month, or just 28 million scam calls per day. I can think of three possible explanations for why USA Today is recycling old numbers instead of giving readers the most recent statistics.
- Quoting a report from advocacy groups like NCLC and EPIC makes the statistic sound more reliable than admitting it actually comes from YouMail.
- They are simply too lazy to check the most recent figures for themselves.
- They do not care if the figures are right or wrong, so long as they fit the narrative of the story.
By now, it should be plain how much the public’s perception could be influenced by selectively choosing unreliable statistics. Though all of these calculations were based on figures supplied by the same company, the sloppy disinterest in precision means the audience could easily have been presented with a statistic as high as 53 million scam calls per day, or as low as 28 million scam calls per day. Such arbitrary freedom in the choice of statistics would be very useful to anyone deliberately seeking to create a false impression over whether the problem of scam calls is getting worse or coming under control as a consequence of law enforcement initiatives.
The USA Today spin on their story is sometimes rendered ridiculous by the literal facts they cite. Instead of actually thinking about the meaning of the following words, they seem to want Americans to believe that the information contained in these sentences demonstrate that government agencies are succeeding in their task.
The FTC and authorities said they hope to stop “lead-generation consent farms” that often trick consumers by offering free prizes, rewards or even potential job leads if they provide their personal information. That “consent,” the FTC said, can then be sold to telemarketers and lead to receiving unwanted robocalls.
The FTC said it has handled 167 such cases and added it “won’t stop until companies that violate the FTC Act and the Telemarking Sales Rule hang up once and for all.” Court rulings have ordered violators to pay more than $2 billion and the FTC has collected more than $394 million, with most of the money refunded to defrauded consumers.
The FTC has obtained nominal penalties worth USD2bn. They have collected USD394mn in practice. In other words, they collect less than 20 percent of the amount that scammers and their enablers are ordered to pay. How is this evidence of success? It appears more like proof that government agencies are chasing meaningless headlines about big penalties when they know the overwhelming majority of criminals will not be forced to pay a penny in compensation for the harm they have done.
So little thought has gone into analyzing the performance of government agencies that we are then treated with this sentence:
Two other companies were ordered to pay nearly $1.4 million in penalties, but most will not likely be fully paid because they can’t afford it, the FTC said.
The FTC is literally stating that they expect enormous theoretical ‘penalties’ will have no consequences for anyone in the real world, but the USA Today includes this in a story about ‘ramping up’ the enforcement of the law. In this scenario, an actual ‘ramping up’ of punishment would involve collecting one dollar in fines instead of none. The protection being given to Americans consists of a facade, delivered by a broken legal system which wastes resources on ‘ramping up’ nominal penalties written into courtroom paperwork although nobody believes those amounts can be collected in practice.
The utter failure of the US government and its agencies — partly enabled by the complacency of both political parties — is neatly summarized by the closing paragraphs of the USA Today article. After giving readers little real reason to respect the latest ‘crack down’ on scams, we are told who is really expected to work harder to tackle scammers.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, has filed multiple lawsuits against illegal robocalls and joined other attorneys general to form a bipartisan national Anti-Robocall Litigation Task Force. Yost said Tuesday that the efforts to stop phone scammers will help authorities “outwit and defeat these perpetrators” in their own arena.
“Our secret weapon is consumers — whom we urge to continue reporting illicit robocalls, so we can sever these unwanted illegal robocallers’ connection once and for all,” Yost said in a press statement.
Why should the public spend time reporting scammers when it is unlikely the scammers will pay a single penny in fines? Consumers would have nothing to report if they were actually being protected from scammers. The idea that scammers will be defeated if consumers make more effort to report scams is as inane as suggesting murderers will be defeated by forensic examinations of the people they killed. It is too late by then; the crime has already been committed. Deterrence and imprisonment might serve to reduce the number of crimes in future, but it is plain that the US legal system is neither deterring nor punishing the criminals responsible for scams.
Politicians are correct about responsibility ultimately resting with ordinary people, not because they are consumers, but because they are voters. Americans will continue to be plagued by scam calls unless they start electing politicians who care more about results than soundbites. That is unlikely to happen until Americans demand news coverage which gives them solid facts instead of vapid propaganda.