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Regulators give phone companies new tools to fight robocalls

Published:Friday | June 7, 2019 | 12:31 AM

Federal regulators voted Thursday to give phone companies the right to block unwanted calls without getting customers’ permission first.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) move could make call-blocking widespread and help consumers dodge annoying robocalls, which have exploded into a problem that pesters Americans on the level of billions of calls a month.

One caveat: Phone companies don’t actually have to do anything, and they could start charging you if they do – just as they now charge for some caller ID features and other extras. The FCC expects phone companies to offer these tools for free, but it doesn’t require them to.

The rise in debt collectors, telemarketers and, most worrisome, fraudsters ringing up consumers’ phones have led the FCC and Congress to push phone companies to do more. The companies have been slow to act against such automated calls on their own.

Robocalls have increased as cheap software makes it easy to make mass calls. Scammers don’t care if you’ve added your number to the government’s Do Not Call list, and enforcement is negligible. There are five billion calls per month in the US, according to call-blocker YouMail. That works out to 14 calls per person.

Thursday’s FCC vote could potentially be a powerful counter against unwanted calls. While call-blocking apps already exist, you have to turn them on or ask for them. Now, along with clarifying that both wireless and landline companies can block unwanted calls without asking customers first, the FCC said that wireless carriers are also allowed to block all callers who aren’t on a customer’s contact list. You would have to request that from your phone company. Consumers can also “opt out” and ask their company not to block anything.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai believes phone companies will have an incentive to step up and offer these services for free.

“These robocalls that are being placed on their own networks are a hassle and a cost for them to handle,” Pai said in an interview.

But commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, criticised the agency Thursday for not requiring that the call-blocking service be made free. The other Democratic commissioner, Geoffrey Starks, said the agency would be able to propose rules against charging if that’s needed later.

Verizon said it will “evolve” its free call-blocking tool for wireless customers and be able to provide spam alerts and blocking more broadly, but spokesman Richard Young said there will not be “short-term, across-the-board blocking.” He did not say how Verizon plans to change its offerings for landline customers, who today can sign up for a third-party blocking service.

AT&T did not answer questions about its plans, but said it is committed to fighting illegal and unwanted calls. T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to inquiries on Thursday. Sprint, which charges for its call-blocking service, said last week that it was looking at “additional solutions” and was optimistic that the changes would let it “take more aggressive actions”.