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HBO host John Oliver devoted his Sunday night show to robocalls and the FCC's refusal to stop them. (Photo: @RollingStone/Twitter)

Sick of Scammers? John Oliver Unveils Epic Robocall Operation to Give FCC a Taste of Surging Problem

The HBO host said he had set up an automated message that will reach the FCC's offices every 90 minutes—the same kind of frequent robocall millions of Americans get daily

Julia Conley

On Sunday, HBO's John Oliver zeroed in once again on an injustice perpetrated on the American people and took direct action—this time focusing his attention on robocalls and the Trump administration's refusal to combat them.

Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" production team set up an automated message that was programmed to dial the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) every 90 minutes.

The host aimed to drive home the point made by more than 200,000 Americans who called the agency to complain about to robocalls last year—that the calls "vary from the irritating to the outright illegal," and that the FCC must act to stop companies from continuing their usage.

"FCC, we meet again, old friends. Except this time, I don't actually need to ask hordes of real people to bombard you with messages—because with the miracle of robocalling, I can now do it all by myself." —John OliverThe announcement of Oliver's new effort came at the end of segment on the scourge of robocalls—defined as any call in which a machine dials a number or a person picks up their ringing phone only to hear a recording on the other end—and how the problem became so widespread in recent years, with Americans receiving constant calls from recordings warning of pending lawsuits and criminal charges or promising new credit card offers and lowered interest rates.

"If you've been feeling like you've been getting more of them lately, you're actually right," the comedian and activist said. "Robocalls increased by 57 percent in 2018 to nearly 50 billion calls."

"It should not be entirely up to us to deal with this bullshit," Oliver added. "The FCC has the authority to police robocalls."


Complaints about the calls are the number one grievance the FCC receives from consumers, making up 60 percent of the complaints it received last year. And, said Oliver, experts say by next year, half of all phone calls made in the U.S. will likely be from robocallers.

The FCC is "definitely aware of the problem," Oliver said.

Yet, in keeping with his pattern of disregarding the public's wishes while instituting policy, Chairman Ajit Pai has merely "urged" companies to combat robo-calling free call blocking or authentication services, instead of requiring them to do so.

Pai's inaction has left consumer advocates worried that the FCC may make it even easier for spam phone calls to continue by narrowing the definition of what constitutes a robocall.

The solution, Oliver said, is to show Pai what millions of Americans face daily, sometimes receiving dozens of robocalls in a single day.

"If only there was a way to get the FCC's attention on this issue,” Oliver mused. "Of course, one way to do that would be if someone had, oh, say, the office numbers of all five FCC commissioners—because then you could, hypothetically, set up a program to robocall those numbers every 90 minutes with a message."

Oliver's team did just that, taking just 15 minutes to set up the automated calls.

The comedian's campaign is just his latest effort to take direct action against corporate and government powers on behalf of the American people, using his wide platform.

Oliver established a church to demonstrate how easy it is for self-proclaimed religious organizations to avoid paying taxes and forgave $15 million in medical debt by purchasing the debt for under $60,000. The host also crashed the FCC's website in 2017 when he set up a system allowing users to easily leave comments calling for the agency to uphold net neutrality rules.

"Yes: FCC, we meet again, old friends," Oliver said Sunday night. "Except this time, unlike our past encounters, I don't actually need to ask hordes of real people to bombard you with messages—because with the miracle of robocalling, I can now do it all by myself."

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