Telecommunications:

Weaknesses in Procedures and Performance Management Hinder Junk Fax Enforcement

GAO-06-425: Published: Apr 5, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 5, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Mark L. Goldstein
(202) 512-3000
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibited invasive telemarketing practices, including the faxing of unsolicited advertisements, known as "junk faxes," to individual consumers and businesses. Junk faxes create costs for consumers (paper and toner) and disrupt their fax operations. The Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005 clarified an established business relationship exemption, specified opt-out procedures for consumers, and requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)--the federal agency responsible for junk fax enforcement0--to report annually to Congress on junk fax complaints and enforcement. The law also required GAO to report to Congress on FCC's enforcement of the junk fax laws. This report addresses (1) FCC's junk fax procedures and outcomes, (2) the strengths and weaknesses of FCC's procedures, and (3) FCC's junk fax management challenges.

FCC has procedures for receiving and acknowledging the rapidly increasing number of junk fax complaints, but the numbers of investigations and enforcement actions have generally remained the same. In 2000, FCC recorded about 2,200 junk fax complaints; in 2005, it recorded over 46,000. Using its procedures to review the complaints, FCC's Enforcement Bureau (EB) issued 261 citations (i.e., warnings) from 2000 through 2005. EB has ordered six companies to pay forfeitures for continuing to violate the junk fax rules after receiving a citation. The six forfeitures totaled over $6.9 million, none of which has been collected by the Department of Justice for various reasons. EB officials cited competing demands, resource constraints, and the rising sophistication of junk faxers in hiding their identities as hindrances to enforcement. An emphasis on customer service, an effort to document consumers' complaints, and an attempt to target enforcement resources efficiently are the strengths of FCC's procedures; however, inefficient data management, resulting in time-consuming manual data entry, data errors, and--most important--the exclusion of the majority of complaints from decisions about investigations and enforcement, are weaknesses. FCC's guidance to consumers does not provide them with all of the information they need to support FCC's enforcement efforts. FCC faces management challenges in carrying out its junk fax responsibilities. The commission has no clearly articulated long-term or annual goals for junk fax monitoring and enforcement, and it is not analyzing the junk fax data. Without analysis, FCC cannot explore the need for, or implement, changes to its rules, procedures, or consumer guidance that might help deter junk fax violations or give consumers a better understanding of the junk fax rules. Most important, without performance goals and measures and without analysis of complaint and enforcement data, it is not possible to explore the effectiveness of current enforcement measures.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was not analyzing the junk fax complaints that it was receiving. We recommended that FCC use the information in its complaint database to analyze the nature and scope of junk fax complaints to improve its enforcement actions. In May 2010, FCC informed us that it had implemented a new junk fax complaint form (form 1088A) and has been analyzing the data collected from the new form. As a result, 100 percent of junk fax complaints are now screened by computer to determine whether the complaint contains the factual elements essential to a potential violation. Also, complaints are now screened by FCC staff to identify particularly problematic alleged violators and trends regarding junk fax violators. This analysis is used to identify candidates for enforcement actions.

    Recommendation: FCC should introduce recognized performance management practices into its operations in order to improve the performance of its junk fax enforcement efforts. Toward this effort, FCC should use the information in the complaint database to analyze the nature and scope of the complaints. FCC can then begin to determine whether its current enforcement efforts are sufficient in combating junk faxers, and whether any additional enforcement mechanisms might be needed to protect consumers.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was not applying recognized performance management practices to its junk fax enforcement responsibilities. We recommended that FCC establish goals and performance measures for receiving, acknowledging, investigating, and taking enforcement action on junk fax complaints. In May 2010, FCC informed us that it had established goals and performance measures for response and action on junk fax complaints. FCC now has a consumer goal in its SES plan that 100 percent of junk fax complaints be processed within 20 days of receipt. As a result, the average processing speed for junk fax complaints has improved from 5.53 days in fiscal year 2009 to 2.28 days for the first 8 months of fiscal year 2010 (i.e., through May 2010). In addition, FCC now informs consumers within 20 days either that FCC has received sufficient information to warrant an enforcement referral or that their complaint cannot be referred for enforcement and the reason(s) why.

    Recommendation: FCC should introduce recognized performance management practices into its operations in order to improve the performance of its junk fax enforcement efforts. Toward this effort, FCC should establish goals and performance measures for receiving, acknowledging, investigating, and taking enforcement actions on junk fax complaints.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The new form 1088 allows for information collection and analysis that substantially simplifies the consumer complaint process and requests only the information FCC requires for the specific complaint type. When possible, the complainant selects pre-specified answers to questions, eliminating the need for staff to interpret this information. Early data on the new form 1088 is promising and shows that more than 50 percent of the complaints filed actionable. The earlier form 475 for junk fax complaints resulted in just 17 percent actionable complaints. As more system enhancements are developed and implemented, this specificity in the form 1088 will enable more efficient data analysis in identifying major and repeat violators. Congress recently approved FCC's request for authorization to spend $2.1 million to upgrade FCC's consumer complaint enforcement systems. After these upgrades, form 1088 will reduce the need for manual data entry and the associated risk of error. FCC is working to automate other portions of the complaint process as recommended by GAO and thus be able to respond more efficiently to consumer complaints. See accomplishment report GAO-09-1397A.

    Recommendation: FCC's current data collection and management processes contain inefficiencies and adversely affect FCC's procedures for targeting major alleged violators and repeat offenders. To begin to address these problems, FCC should direct consumer and enforcement staff to develop data management strategies to (1) make the consumer complaint database more usable for FCC's staff and (2) mitigate the amount of time spent on manual data entry, as well as possible errors, resulting from this manual data entry. For example, these efforts could include, but not be limited to, revising the Form 475 so that consumers identify through checked boxes, or another similar method, the type of complaint they are filing. This could enhance accuracy and improve staff efficiency by eliminating the need for FCC staff to read a text box to identify the type of complaint and then enter that information into the database. In addition, staff should develop strategies that would enable enforcement staff to search all consumer complaint information contained in the database to identify major and repeat violators.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC staff developed form 1088 which has now replaced form 475. The online version of form 1088A allows the complainant to attach an electronic copy of the fax to the complaint and provides clear instructions how to do so. Revised acknowledgment forms are sent to consumers to provide additional information about sending fax attachments. The acknowledgment serves as a fax cover sheet that associates the submitted fax with the online complaint. See accomplishment report GAO-09-1397A.

    Recommendation: FCC's current consumer guidance does not alert consumers to the necessity, under FCC's current practice, of submitting a copy of the junk fax(es) along with the complaint. Because this impacts the number of complaints that FCC takes into consideration when searching for major alleged violators and repeat offenders, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct staff to revise the Form 475 so that it includes clear instructions for complainants on how to submit a copy of the fax. This may include developing procedures and instructions to let consumers know how to electronically attach a scanned copy of the fax so that it accompanies their complaint form.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC released an order stating that it is not necessary for a complainant to attach a copy of the fax to the complaint for the FCC to review or pursue the complaint. This effected a change to the procedures being followed by FCC staff. See accomplishment report GAO-09-1397A.

    Recommendation: FCC's current consumer guidance does not alert consumers to the necessity, under FCC's current practice, of submitting a copy of the junk fax(es) along with the complaint. Because this impacts the number of complaints that FCC takes into consideration when searching for major alleged violators and repeat offenders, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct staff to revise consumer complaint guidance to make it clear to consumers that they need to include a copy of the fax in order to make it possible for any investigation or enforcement action to take place. This includes revising the wording of the Consumer Fact Sheet, the Internet complaint form (Form 475), the consumer center script, and any other junk fax guidance provided to consumers.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was allocating considerable staff and other resources to enter complaint data into its database, FCC was not analyzing the data and using the results of analyses to set priorities and allocate resources. Without analyzing the data it collects to determine the relative frequency of junk fax and other types of consumer complaints, FCC was limited in its ability to determine whether its staff and other resources were appropriately aligned to address the problems that consumers were experiencing. We also found that FCC's staffing level for junk fax enforcement had remained about the same over the 5 years prior to our report, even though the number of junk fax complaints had rapidly increased. We recommended that FCC evaluate whether its staff and other resources were appropriately aligned to carry out its junk fax responsibilities. In May 2010, FCC informed us that it had implemented a new flexible staffing approach that allowed targeted processing of large numbers of complaints. When necessary, FCC uses this flexible staffing approach to staff contract employees to junk fax complaint processing and enforcement. As a result, FCC issued 1,134 warning citations about junk fax violations during the roughly 3-1/2 year period from September 2006 to mid-April 2010. This is a significant improvement over the 4-year period prior to our report, 2002 to 2005, when FCC issued only 214 citations.

    Recommendation: FCC should introduce recognized performance management practices into its operations in order to improve the performance of its junk fax enforcement efforts. Toward this effort, FCC should evaluate whether its staff and other resources are appropriately aligned to carry out its junk fax responsibilities. This could include, but not be limited to, evaluating the benefits of targeting staff resources to issue more citations that could prompt more violators to cease their offending behavior.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Dec 2, 2014

Sep 17, 2014

Jul 22, 2014

Jun 23, 2014

Apr 23, 2014

Mar 10, 2014

Jan 6, 2014

May 23, 2013

May 22, 2013

May 21, 2013

Looking for more? Browse all our products here