Imagine you live in a country where criminals attack millions of people every day, target the most vulnerable members of society, and are estimated to cause billions of dollars of harm to the economy. Now imagine that the authorities say they do everything they can to catch these criminals, but that identifying them is difficult, and it is the responsibility of privately-owned businesses to pour more resources into finding and stopping the criminals. And now imagine that when these criminals are caught by the private sector and handed over to public prosecutors, that these criminals will admit their guilt, because they are confident they will receive no prison sentence and no financial penalty, that none of their assets will be seized, that they will lose none of the proceeds of their crime, and they are only required to sign a piece of paper promising not to commit the same crimes again. And then imagine that these criminals ignore the piece of paper by committing the same crime again. If you lived in this country, would you be disappointed by journalists that only ever report that the authorities are doing an exemplary job of reducing crime, or that the authorities were only hampered by the lack of support they receive from businesses that should be more publicly spirited? Or would you believe it is the job of journalists to challenge the systematic failures of officials appointed to protect the public? If you live in the USA then you can stop imagining this as some scenario from Stalin’s Soviet Union or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four because you currently live in that country.
The Ohio lawsuit is not the first to take on a major robocalling campaign, nor even the first to target Cox and Jones, who have both been sued by the federal government before.
Roy Melvin Cox Jr. was not just sued by the US federal government. That statement, as copied from CNN, leaves the reader unaware of the outcome. In 2013, Cox reached a settlement with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and was banned from engaging in telemarketing activities forever more. He was not sent to prison, he paid no financial penalty, he lost nothing. A nominal penalty worth more than USD1mn was calculated but Cox never paid a penny because he said he had no money. The only form of punishment that the authorities could claim to have inflicted upon Cox was his supposed ban from any business endeavor that would have presented him with similar opportunities to break the law. It is important to be clear about the fact that Cox was banned, because it tells us something important about the difference between how the law is enforced and what the public is told. When an ordinary person hears that somebody has been ‘banned’ they assume some actual steps will be taken to enforce the ban. In Cox’s case, he agreed to inform the authorities about his business dealings for the next 20 years. But it seems those authorities then did nothing to check on Cox’s activities. And so Cox just resurrected his criminal operation until, many years later, and billions of illegal robocalls later, the press reported the supposed success of catching Cox a second time.
A common cliché asserts it is difficult to identify illegal robocallers, but that is not always true. It is easy to identify illegal robocallers when you already know who they are. Telcos will never find it easy to catch a robocaller; this variety of organized criminal knows how to set up new front companies, complicate the routing of their traffic and hide behind accomplices, so any investigation work done by a telco must always start from scratch. But law enforcement has an easy way to catch recidivist robocallers: they can monitor their bank accounts. The entire world, following the lead of the USA, has undertaken systematic reforms designed to give authorities the power to track the flow of money as a mechanism to tackle crime, but in the bizarro world of telecoms crime we act as if the only law enforcement tools are the monitoring of phone calls and text messages. This is insane. The criminals do not commit their crimes because they like phone calls and messages; they do it for the money. So whilst telcos, unlike banks, cannot see and report upon the suspicious flow of money, the government is certainly capable of mandating special monitoring regimes for known criminals. But instead of applying joined up thinking to a problem that blights everybody in the country, the USA’s fragmented, confused and polarized branches of government, policing and prosecution have utterly failed to devise a coherent plan for how they might work together to punish the criminals responsible for robocalling. Prolonged and systematic failure – the FTC began investigating Roy Cox Jr. for illegal robocalling in 2011 – has been indulged by indolent journalists who do not hold public servants to account.
Regular Commsrisk readers will be familiar with this story. A short while ago I wrote about Cox being the subject of a crackdown on illegal robocalling although his new criminal conspiracy was remarkably similar to that which led to his settlement with the DoJ in 2013. Readers will also be familiar with a wider pattern of the USA repeatedly identifying who is to blame for illegal robocalling but never imposing any punishment. It was only in May that Muhammed Usman Khan admitted he was responsible for ‘tens of millions’ of scam robocalls and reached a settlement where he was given a nominal penalty of USD3.3mn but did not have to pay anything because he said he could not afford to. Just like Cox’s settlement in 2013, Khan was free to walk away on one condition: he had to promise not to break the same laws again. But unlike the press hoo-ha that currently surrounds Cox and his accomplices, neither CNN nor any other major news outlet reported on the leniency shown to Khan. This is because the press only report the big nominal fines and supposed successes of federal agencies and public prosecutors in response to the press releases issued by those federal agencies and public prosecutors. The same journalists are too lazy to report on the absence of a press release when the authorities allow criminals to walk away unpunished.
The extent to which journalists are to blame for systematic US failings became unexpectedly apparent to me on Thursday last week. That was the day Commsrisk began receiving an extraordinary surge of traffic from the USA. Commsrisk is read by professionals worldwide, but the volumes from the USA were so out of proportion that I first assumed it was generated by bots. However, it soon became apparent that the traffic was genuine, and had originated in many different towns and cities across the USA. This was not my target audience of telecoms risk professionals. This traffic came from ordinary Americans who wanted to learn more about Roy Cox Jr and his criminal history. The reason for the surge became apparent when I pieced together the sequence of events. Commsrisk was already at or near the top of Google’s search rankings for ‘Roy Cox Jr’, or ‘Roy Cox robocall’, or various other variations around the name of the aforementioned robocaller. The timing of the surge in traffic coincided with US news media pushing new stories about what they presented as the success of the authorities in identifying Roy Cox as responsible for his most recent series of illegal robocalls. So members of the US public started Googling Cox’s name to find out more. After hearing sycophantic stories that lauded the agencies and prosecutors tasked with protecting the public, they came to this website and received a startlingly different account. But I am not CNN. I am a specialist who writes for a niche professional audience. Something is terribly wrong if this website is the only resource informing ordinary Americans that weak law enforcement is fundamentally to blame for billions of unlawful robocalls they receive.
Elected officials like public prosecutors and high-profile federal agencies like the FCC have the resources to court the media. They pump out stories designed to increase their popularity. That is not surprising. What is disappointing is that you might think the job of journalists working in a free society is to ask questions of people in authority. The settlement reached between Roy Cox and prosecutors in 2013 is a matter of public record. It is no secret that Cox received no prison time. It is no secret that he notionally agreed to a financial penalty worth over USD1mn but he did not actually pay a penny because prosecutors agreed he had no money. It is no secret that there was a 20-year supervisory order designed to enforce a ban on Cox engaging in any telemarketing ever again. It is plain that the details of the spam calling operation Cox operated prior to 2011 are remarkably similar to the details of the Sumco Panama operation he has masterminded since 2018 and which is now receiving press attention. So we can reasonably infer that the ban on Cox’s robocalling activities was completely ineffective. But instead of journalists questioning federal agencies and prosecutors to determine what was accomplished by the lengthy investigation and prosecution of Cox between 2011 and 2013, or how billions of robocalls were made by somebody who was supposedly banned from making such calls and was required to report to law enforcement about all his business dealings, this story is presented by journalists as a gleaming untarnished success story for the people appointed to protect the public from criminals like Cox.
Too many journalists now think it is their job to simply repeat what others have told them. They lack the skill, time, insight or motivation to properly inform the public about why communications services are abused. They act like there has not been a revolution in electronic communications in recent decades, although every revolution leads to previously unimagined problems. They talk as if Cox was free because it is hard to catch robocallers. They behave as if Cox is now sure to receive punishment. They provide no analysis of all the many times that the free press slavishly reproduced press releases about large nominal fines for robocallers but then failed to report that these fines were never collected in practice. Journalists act like amnesiacs despite all the resources at their disposal. They are repeatedly thrilled at some new official announcement about vigorous action being taken to reduce robocalls but they never seemingly notice that if the previous action was effective then people like Roy Cox would have already stopped making robocalls. So instead of providing serious analysis of a topic that matters to many angry Americans, the tarot readers and spiritual diviners of the free press keep promising the first tentative signs of a downward trend in robocalls, even whilst the rest of us look at the same graphs and question how journalists came to such a bizarre interpretation of the statistics. And because American journalists refuse to provide any international perspective, they do not advise that Australia has halved the number of scam calls in less time than it takes US prosecutors to negotiate a cursory settlement with one proven robocaller.
But there is one part of the US story that has changed dramatically, and you certainly will not hear about this change from anybody working in an official position. The media story fed to the press about Roy Cox is sharply different to other stories about robocalling in one specific regard. Because I read through all the press releases, and I have a memory, I can confirm that STIR/SHAKEN is almost always highlighted as the vital new tool that will deliver a hammer blow to robocallers. There is no mention of STIR/SHAKEN in the latest media stories about catching Roy Cox. Those stories focus instead on the traceback process. Praise has been lavished on the traceback process for the very first time. This is an important change in the narrative. It reflects tensions within the US telecoms community about where best to focus resources, and shows who is now gaining the upper hand. The FCC will doubtless continue to pursue an agenda of attempting to foist STIR/SHAKEN on other countries, but it is significant that key individuals responsible for crafting the public narrative decided to skip any mention of STIR/SHAKEN when deciding to fuel stories about Roy Cox. Agencies like the FCC never admit to making mistakes, but when a policy fails they will try to focus attention elsewhere.
Ordinary Americans are being let down by their government, their federal agencies, and their prosecutors, all of whom deserve their share of the blame for the epidemic of robocalls. The US media likes to tell the public that there is bipartisan agreement to tackle robocalls, but they rarely mention that the US is one of the few countries where politicians can legally make millions of robocalls that annoy ordinary people by begging for their money and their votes. Telcos may not be perfect either, but they shoulder an unfair portion of blame because starting a public relations war with government would be a no-win scenario for them. That is why it is a tragedy that journalists who claim to hold government to account cannot square the circle of why the same telcos are simultaneously accused of selfishly blocking traffic (in the case of net neutrality) and selfishly refusing to block traffic (in the case of robocalls) without anyone questioning if government has found the right balance between forcing telcos to open their networks to everyone whilst instructing telcos to close their networks to undesirable elements. It should be obvious that perfecting this balance will always be difficult. Not a single press release or journalist has ever had the sense or decency to mention the possibility that the transition to IP networks and the overall reduction in call rates may be factors that have affected that balance. There has been tinkering with the rules in the USA so telcos can now block traffic with less fear of being taken to court by criminal enterprises but journalists rarely mention important details like these. Nor is there any examination of the failure to punish robocallers, even though FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel routinely criticized the Department of Justice on this specific point before she was promoted to her current role.
All the relevant facts are available to anyone wanting to piece the story together. A lot can be found by simply reading court documents, consultations run by federal agencies and old press releases. Useful information can even by gleaned by re-reading old and poorly-written news articles, because the story of a broken promise begins with articulating the promise. It is only later that you realize the promise was not kept. Journalists do not report the breaking of the promise because they only write stories when they receive a new press release, and public officials will never issue a press release that says a criminal was not punished or a fine was not collected. The US media is hence sucked into repeatedly promising a new dawn in the fight against robocalls. They never admit the world keeps turning, and we soon find ourselves back where we were.