On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver demonstrated the skin-crawling annoyance of robocalls by targeting the exact agency that could stop them, the Federal Communications Commission, with a hilarious robocall of his own.
But before that satisfying grand finale, the comedian explained the “clearly infuriating” phenomenon in the show’s main segment — defining robocalls and determining what we can do to end them. “Everybody is annoyed by robocalls,” he said to open the piece. “Hatred of them might be the only thing that everybody in America agrees on now.”
Robocalls are “any call when you hear a recording or a robot voice — or when a machine automatically dialed your number, even if there is a real person on the other end,” he said. “And while a small percentage of robocalls may be useful, calls about things like school closings or prescription reminders, the vast majority of them vary from the irritating to the outright illegal.”
Overall, they’re the FCC’s top complaint each year, 60 percent overall — understandable, since robocalls increased by 57 percent in 2018 to 47.8 billion total in the U.S. “While a small percentage of robocalls may be useful, calls about things like school closings or prescription reminders,” he said, “the vast majority of them vary from the irritating to the outright illegal.”
Many major companies — including Capital One, Comcast and Wells Fargo — use the tactic for debt collection. And while users can tell individual companies not to call them, forcing them to comply by law, the lengthy user agreements we sign — the ones hardly anyone reads — often give those companies consent to call, making it difficult to end the robo-cycle.
An even greater concern is “spoofing,” a disturbingly effective technique wherein scammers use computer technology to mimic legit companies or even real people, tricking users into doling out personal information. (Experts advise you not to answer robocalls or engage with them because doing so proves a live person owns your number, and that can lead to even more calls.)
“It should not be entirely up to us to deal with this bullshit,” Oliver declared. And while the FCC recently designed a system to limit robocalls, that didn’t pan out — after a trade group sued, the rules were struck down.
“Since becoming [FCC Commissioner, Ajit Pai] has seemed reluctant to force telecoms to act,” the host said. “For instance, he could require them to offer free call-blocking services or implement something called ‘call authentication,’ which could significantly curtail spoofing. But he hasn’t done that — instead, what he’s done is ‘urge’ them to do it. And while some say that they are ‘working on it,’ the fact is if he had ‘required’ them to do it from the get-go, we might actually have those fixes by now.”
Experts worry that Pai might cave to pressure from groups like telemarketers and banks, drafting a “new, narrower definition of what constitutes autodialing,” thereby limiting what would count as a robocall.
To help pressure the FCC into fighting the good fight — and, well, for the hell of it — Last Week Tonight designed its own robocall targeting the office numbers of the agency’s five commissioners every hour-and-a-half. Oliver unveiled the hilarious call during the show’s grand finale.
“Hi, FFC,” the message reads. “This is John from customer service. Congratulations! You’ve just won a chance to lower robocalls in America today. [laughs] Sorry, but I am a live person. Robocalls are incredibly annoying, and the person who can stop them is…you! Talk to you again in 90 minutes. Here’s some bagpipe music. [bagpipe music]”