FCC to Phone Companies: Offer free Robocall Blockers to customers

Even though the Federal Communications Commission has repeatedly said that wireless and landline phone providers are allowed to offer robocall-blocking services to their customers, some carriers have continued to incorrectly insist — and provide misinformation to consumers — that they simply don’t have the authority to deploy this technology. In an effort to make things clear once and for all, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has sent letters to these companies that there are no regulatory roadblocks stopping them from helping their customers stop annoying — often illegal — automated and prerecorded robocalls.

“Nothing in the Commission’s rules and orders prevents [phone companies] from offering customers robocall blocking technology,” writes Wheeler in letters to the chief executives at AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon. “I strongly urge you to offer your customers robust call blocking at no cost.”

Between the Do Not Call List and rules prohibiting private robocallers from sending prerecorded messages or texts without having received prior consent, robocalling as a legitimate-but-annoying telemarketing tool has virtually disappeared. Yet complaints about robocalls continue to grow in number, indicating that most of these calls are being placed illegally, often by scammers.

In spite of this, many in the telecom industry have been reluctant to deploy robocall blockers, citing technological issues and raising concerns that all existing blockers could inadvertently block legitimate calls from going through.

“We understand that providers do not want to block calls without their customers’ permission,” writes Wheeler in his letters to the telecom CEOs. “We agree and said as much last summer — consumers should only opt into any blocking/filtering solution after the provider has given them an understanding of the solution’s capabilities.”

Wheeler also takes issue with the telecom industry’s stance that blockers should be put on hold until new Caller ID authentication standards are in place, saying that “is not a valid excuse to delay” deployment.

“We agree that work on authentication standards is important and urge you and other providers to help accelerate the development of such standards, he writes. “But this work should not come at the expense of offering consumers robocall blocking solutions now.”

In addition to writing the telecom CEOs, Wheeler has written separate letters to execs at companies like Level 3 and Bandwidth.com that provide the important backbone of the internet, connecting your local broadband network to the rest of the world. More relevant to this discussion, these companies connect internet phone services like FiOS and Xfinity to the phone companies.

In these letters, Wheeler calls for companies to maintain the integrity of Caller ID information as calls get passed from network to network. Many scam robocallers use fake “spoofed” numbers and then route their calls through multiple networks, making it very difficult to trace it back to the source.

Additionally, the letters ask Level 3 and Bandwidth to help improve caller ID authentication by creating a “Do-Not-Originate” list.

“The Do-Not-Originate list would allow domestic entities that are regularly impersonated by caller ID spoofing, such as government agencies, financial institutions, or health care facilities, to register their outbound numbers in a database,” explains Wheeler. “If a call from one of these numbers reaches a gateway from outside the United States, it could be marked as suspicious or blocked, likely significantly reducing fraud.”

Both the phone providers and the backbone providers have been given 30 days to reply to Wheeler’s letter.

“Consumers are tired of being hounded by robocalls that interrupt their privacy and are often used by crooks to commit fraud,” said Tim Marvin, or colleague at Consumers Union, who heads up the End Robocalls campaign. “The phone companies need to start listening to their customers who are desperate for relief. The time for action is long overdue.”

Wheeler is in a bit of a pickle with regard to robocalls. On one front, lawmakers, consumer advocates, and the American people have pushed the FCC to help expedite robocall blocking. At the same time, the FCC has the unenviable task of having to figure out new Congressionally mandated rules that would allow the federal government — and certain companies that work for the government — to make debt-collection robocalls.

That would be almost like asking the USDA to tighten up beef safety standards while simultaneously figuring out how to let the federal government sell contaminated beef.

To that end, the FCC has proposed rules it contends will minimize the annoyance of these unwanted calls — like putting a cap on the number calls a collector can make to an alleged debtor each month; requiring that collectors’ messages make it clear that the debtor has a right to request that the calls stop; and barring collectors from placing robocalls to friends or family members of the debtor.