• Bloomberg


The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to help 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 agency, on a 5-0 bipartisan vote, authorized carriers to automatically identify and block unwanted robocalls by using analytics that home in on sources of large bursts of calls, or place calls of brief duration, or other means. The measure applies to both landline and wireless telephone systems.

“If there is one thing in our country right now that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans, it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said as the FCC prepared to vote. “We hear you and we are on your side.”

Yet experts warn that 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. And the measures are voluntary: phone companies won’t be required to take advantage of the call-blocking systems that the FCC is encouraging, and could charge consumers fees for using them.

The FCC’s two Democrats said the call-blocking services should be offered for free.

“Robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, said he was concerned about “giving carriers such vast discretion to decide which calls are unwanted.” The power could “lead to wanted calls containing highly pertinent consumer information being blocked,” he said.

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 landlines 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.

Consumer Reports in an emailed statement said the FCC had taken “constructive steps.”

“There is still much more work to be done — including getting phone companies to implement anti-robocall technology, and ensuring that this service is provided to consumers free of charge,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumer Reports. “The FCC also needs to issue strong rules clarifying the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s coverage, to stop robocallers from attempting to evade it.”

International scam calls may 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.

Verizon Communications Inc. in a statement called the FCC vote “welcome news.”

“We intend to take advantage of the new flexibility the FCC is giving us,” Verizon Executive Vice President Ronan Dunne said in the statement.

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.

The ruling could block legitimate businesses, including credit unions, from contacting their members, the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions said.

“In the event of fraud or a data breach, consumers could be left in the dark for days,” Carrie Hunt, executive vice president with the credit union group, said in an emailed statement.

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.

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