John Oliver faces off against robocalls on Last Week Tonight


Robocalls are the bane of every phone owner’s existence, and they’re getting worse. John Oliver examines how it got this way and offers a possible solution.

Maybe it’s gotten to the point where you won’t even answer your phone anymore. A new number pops up on the screen and, instead of thinking it’s a friend with a new phone or that job interview finally coming in, you know. No, you don’t need any real powers of observation or mind reading to see this for what it is: a robocall.

If the predictions are right, you won’t even need to get very good at these guesses. According to some estimates, fully half of the calls we receive in 2019 will be robocalls. In 2018 alone, these automatic calls increased by 57 percent from the previous year.

Why are these calls on the rise? According to John Oliver, who discussed the issue on Last Week Tonight, they’re “clearly infuriating.” They can also be pretty alarming, given that some calls claim that there’s a warrant out for your arrest or that the IRS is getting ready to audit you to the end of time.

First, we have to nail down the definition of a robocall. According to Oliver, it’s any call involving an artificial voice or an automatically dialed call that may or may not have a real person on the end of the line.

To be fair, some robocalls might be useful, like when the school district calls to let you know that you have a snow day. You might also get an automated call for things like fraud alerts on your credit card. HowEver, that’s only a fraction of the total robocall volume, leaving the remainder as an annoying and potentially harmful force.

Before you point out the existence of the National Do Not Call Registry, let’s take a closer look. That only applies to sales calls. Oh, and it doesn’t actually block companies from calling you. It’s more of a set of guidelines that a company is supposed to check, but they definitely aren’t doing that. If someone’s a scammer, they also aren’t going to care about checking the Do Not Call Registry to make sure they’re on the up and up.

Phone calls are so cheap and the tech so accessible that almost anyone can set up a robocalling campaign. Robocallers and scammers can easily pretend to be calling from your area. People might even pretend to be individuals in order to pull off a scam.

All of this is an issue because most of us really need to use our phones, and not for fielding calls about someone’s insurance scam.

What exactly are we supposed to do about this? You could tell individual companies not to call you, and they are generally supposed to comply, but there are a few catches. By law, those companies are not supposed to call without your consent. Well, unless you signed a user agreement that actually does sign off on it. In that case, all bets are off. But you read that agreement completely and took notes on it, right? Of course, even if you did, there isn’t a guaranteed chance that you’d be able to ditch said company for another, potentially mythical one that’s more honest.

Really, you shouldn’t pick up. If you do, that lets them know that your number is a live number and they won’t let go. But, Oliver argued that the onus should not be on the consumer. Companies should get consent first, or at the very least respect the wishes of someone who tells them not to call. That’s the thinking of some people who were pushing for more strict laws that would force companies to leave our phones alone.

Ah, but then there’s Ajit Pai. The current FCC Chairman has said that he’s against the whole affair, but hasn’t bothered to actually follow up the talk with any sort of substantial walk. Pai actually opposed the rules that would have hit telecoms for robocalling. He hasn’t offered any sort of authentication or security measures or required companies to abide by those rules. Sure, he’s asked them nicely if they would maybe consider looking at those rules, but we all know that will do nothing.

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“If only there was a way to get the FCC’s attention on this issue,” mused Oliver. Something, like, oh, setting up a program to automatically call all five FCC commissioners every 90 minutes. Yeah, one with an automated John Oliver — complete with a creepy, unprompted laugh — that also plays a short clip of bagpipe music at the end of the call.

Robocalling is apparently so easy that Last Week Tonight’s tech guy needed all of 15 minutes to figure out the above trick. But John Oliver needs a little more showmanship before implementing the plan. That’s why he triggered the process with a huge finger and a huge button. Don’t worry, they can opt out by spotting the address in the text of Moby Dick scrolling down the screen. We’re sure the FCC Commissioners will be just fine.