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FCC Votes to Stop More Suspected Robocalls

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Complaints about robocalls have been a major issue for state attorneys general, who advocated for more federal action.

The Federal Communications Commission struck a blow at nuisance robocalls Thursday, voting to allow phone carriers to automatically enroll consumers in call-blocking programs that weed out suspected spam calls.  

Americans receive more than 5 billion robocalls each month, and the FCC’s action comes as the public and consumer protection groups have increasingly urged both the FCC and Congress to crack down on scam calls. State attorneys general, which receive a lot of complaints about robocalls, have urged federal action, with many officials saying the ability of states to respond to scammers located outside the country is limited.

The FCC’s order will allow telecom companies, like Sprint and AT&T, to automatically block suspected robocalls from going through to customers’ phones. The order will also let customers opt in to more aggressive call-blocking services by allowing carriers to block all calls not emanating from a pre-approved list or address book.

Robocalls have become a unique scourge, with scammers spoofing phone numbers to make calls appear to come from a customer’s area code or a familiar phone number. And the calls aren’t just an annoying nuisance, as some are vehicles for nefarious actors seeking access to customers’ personal data.

“Currently, you have to affirmatively reach out to your carrier to activate these services. With today's vote, phone companies will have the legal clarity they need in order to offer call blocking services as a default,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said after Thursday’s vote. “Think about how many junk mails you used to get before spam filters. We hope that call blocking default can have a similar impact on reducing unwanted robocalls.”

While the FCC’s measure received bipartisan support from commissioners, some raised concern that phone carriers may opt to charge consumers for call-blocking services.

“I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop," said Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

She dissented in part against the FCC measure, warning that there nothing in it “that prevents companies from charging each of us whatever additional fees they want to put this call blocking technology on our line.”

After Thursday’s vote, Pai said it was expected that carriers would offer call blocking services for free. He said the commission would review services within a year to determine whether additional rulemaking is required to enforce that.

The FCC also advanced a proposal that would require carriers to implement new protocols to distinguish between legitimate calls. Under the proposal, the FCC would require carriers to implement the SHAKEN/STIR caller ID authentication framework by the end of the year.

State attorneys general have appealed to both the FCC and Congress to urge action. In March, attorneys general from every state, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico wrote to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation advocating for passage of legislation that would require phone providers to use the SHAKEN/STIR  authentication technology to determine whether a call is legitimate before patching it through to a user’s phone.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who is leading a group of attorneys general in efforts to stop unwanted robocalls, applauded the FCC's action but said more work is needed on the part of carriers.

"I now call on the phone companies to integrate call blocking into their infrastructure," Stein said. "People deserve protection from these calls that are at best annoying and at worst scams.”

State attorneys general previously wrote to the FCC to encourage the commission to protect consumers from predatory scam calls. In a letter sent to the FCC in October, the attorneys general outlined some of the predatory tactics deployed by robocallers.

“Consumers have recently reported receiving calls where their own phone numbers appeared on their caller ID,” the AGs wrote. “A consumer who answered one such call reported the caller attempted to trick her by saying he was with the phone company and required personal information to verify the account, claiming it had been hacked. Scams like this cannot be tolerated.”

While consumer groups were supportive of the measure, a broad coalition of associations representing banks, hospitals and debt collectors were critical of the rule over concerns it would erroneously prevent lawful calls from their industries.

“These include alerts from a child’s school (e.g., regarding unplanned closures or emergencies); updates about electric utility outages; public safety notifications; healthcare and dosing reminders; data breach, fraud alert, and service disruption notifications; and urgent vehicle safety recall notifications,” the coalition wrote to the FCC in May.

In each of those instances, a company initiates a large volume of calls that could potentially be labeled as spam and blocked, the industry associations wrote.

Pai said Thursday that he believed these concerns were addressed through the FCC’s requirement that call-blocking programs have a mechanism to allow legitimate callers to register and resolve complaints when their calls are blocked.

Andrea Noble is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty.

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