Tags: fcc | robocalls | plan | block

FCC Has New Plan to Block Those Incessant Robocalls

FCC Has New Plan to Block Those Incessant Robocalls
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Thursday, 06 June 2019 05:29 AM

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants to shield you from those unwanted telemarketers and scammers who warn you about fake tax problems or offer too-good-to-be-true vacation packages.

The FCC is scheduled to vote Thursday to authorize carriers to automatically identify and block unwanted robocalls -- for instance, by using analytics that home in on sources that emit large bursts of calls, or place calls of brief duration. The measure is expected to pass and apply to both landline and wireless telephone systems.

“They can be a powerful weapon in the fight against robocalls, just as email providers routinely filter junk messages into your spam folder,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a blog post supporting the initiative.

Yet experts warn that nuisance and illegal callers slinging bogus tax bills and insurance schemes might still find a way to get through. Calls originating from overseas could present a technical challenge. Phone companies won’t be required to take advantage of the call-blocking systems that the FCC is encouraging, and consumers could face fees for using them.

“These rules only allow phone companies to take additional steps to protect consumers from robocalls, they stop short of requiring them to do so,” Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst with Consumer Reports, said in an email. She said the agency should go further, such as squelching a trick known as spoofing, when nuisance callers display a false caller ID.

Nonetheless, Pai said the measures could result in a major reduction in robocalls.

With FCC action, carriers could block calls “unless you affirmatively opt-out,” Pai said. “Call blocking would become the rule, not the exception.”

The goal is to blunt the onrush of robocalls to home and mobile phones -- 4.7 billion in May, out of roughly 25 billion in the U.S. so far this year, according to an estimate from YouMail, a closely held company that offers call-blocking. YouMail tallied 48 billion robocalls last year, up from 31 billion in 2017.

Robocalls are a top source of consumer complaints at the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission, which manages the national Do Not Call registry that prohibits some sales calls. At the FTC, Do Not Call complaints increased from 3.6 million in 2015 to 7.2 million in 2017 before dropping to 5.8 million in 2018. Each year more than half the calls prompting complaints were classified as robocalls.

Callers are supposed to get prior consent before telephoning land lines with a recorded or artificial voice, or before calling mobile phones with automatically dialed or artificial voice messages, according to the FCC.

The do-not-call rules don’t apply to political organizations, pollsters and survey takers, according to the FCC.

The FCC’s proposal would let phone companies conduct call-blocking without gaining permission from subscribers. The order doesn’t require companies to tell customers what numbers will be blocked. Companies would need to offer consumers enough information to decide whether to stay in, or opt out -- for instance, disclosing what types of calls would be blocked.

The agency said it wanted to dispel an impression that call blocking would be a violation of its rules, which generally ensure calls are completed.

The FCC’s proposed changes “are not enough. They’re not a magic bullet,” said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

The FCC is “nibbling around the edges” of the problem, Saunders said. She added that the agency should ensure that call-placing equipment remains covered by the law that requires consent for calls, despite an appeals court ruling last year. Judges tossed out earlier FCC regulations, saying the FCC’s language was too broad and could be construed to prohibit calls from any smartphone. The agency is considering its reaction.

International Angle

International scam calls may also present a challenge because foreign operators’ equipment won’t be as helpful in labeling calls as legitimate or not, said Alex Quilici, chief executive officer of YouMail.

“A lot of international calls, it’s going to be difficult to tell -- is this spam, or a scam, or is it real?” he said.

Phone companies reacted cautiously. The FCC’s measure needs to include “robust, broad” protection against being punished for blocking calls that don’t deserve to be intercepted, CTIA and US Telecom, trade groups with members that include the largest carriers, told the FCC in recent meetings. Protection “is necessary to encourage aggressive unwanted call blocking actions,” trade group representatives said, according to a disclosure filing.

Verizon, AT&T

“Verizon is very encouraged by the FCC’s proposal,” Richard Young, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc., said in an email. “If approved, we intend to use this new authority that the FCC is giving us to more effectively protect our customers from robocalls.”

AT&T Inc. will review the FCC’s action “to determine how we will offer our customers best-in-class tools to combat unlawful robocalls, consistent with this new authority,” Michael Balmoris, a spokesman, said in an email.

Business groups cautioned that the call blocking may not distinguish illegal telemarketing and scams from legitimate calls placed once they have consent from a subscriber.

Pharmacy Blocked

“Consumers are likely going to miss calls from doctor’s offices, from pharmacies, from schools calling about the kids, financial service calls, mortgage calls, banks, debt collectors -- you name it,” Mark Neeb, chief executive officer of ACA International, which represents credit collectors, said in an interview. “A consumer isn’t going to get the calls and they’re not going to know what calls are blocked.”

Carriers “could harm consumers by resulting in the erroneous blocking of lawful, and often urgent, calls” about school closings, utility outages, fraud alerts and vehicle recalls, the American Bankers Association told the FCC. Call-blocking algorithms have labeled banks’ lawful calls as spam in many cases, the ABA said.

In fact, phone companies may be reluctant to put in place aggressive call-blocking for fear of interfering with needed or wanted calls, said YouMail’s Quilici. He raised the example of an improperly blocked call from a pharmacy.

“Grandma doesn’t get her prescription and something bad happens to her -- that’s catastrophic,” Quilici said.

© Copyright 2019 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

   
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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants to shield you from those unwanted telemarketers and scammers who warn you about fake tax problems or offer too-good-to-be-true vacation packages.
fcc, robocalls, plan, block
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2019-29-06
Thursday, 06 June 2019 05:29 AM
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