FCC moves to increase the use of technology for blocking robocalls

FCC moves to increase the use of technology for blocking robocalls

May 15th, 2019 by Cecilia Kang / New York Times News Service in Business Around the Region

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has repeatedly said that ending the scourge of robocalls is a top priority. On Wednesday, he announced plans for the most aggressive action yet toward achieving that goal.

The chairman, Ajit Pai, proposed a rule that would empower mobile phone carriers to automatically block the unwanted calls, which often involve scams, by employing tools that filtered out calls from unidentified or unwanted callers.

The action would not stop all robocalls. The blocking technology can already be installed by consumers, and scammers have found some ways around it.

But the proposal could lead to wider use of the technology, which stops calls from numbers that do not appear on lists of numbers known to be legitimate.

"The American people are fed up with illegal robocalls," Pai said in a call with reporters. "We need to make it easier for phone companies to block these robocalls."

A vote on the proposal is expected at a meeting of the commissioners June 6. It is likely to be approved.

Illegal robocalls have grown quickly in recent years despite federal do-not-call lists and legal action against the companies behind the calls.

The commission received 5.8 million complaints about unwanted calls last year. The number of robocalls increased by 66%, to 48 billion, from 2016 to 2018, according to YouMail, which tracks robocalls.

Not all robocalls are illegal. Emergency services, political polling and municipal and school alerts are delivered by automatic calling.

Pai said carriers could not use the blocking tool to fend off emergency services calls. Under his proposal, carriers would be able to identify the phone numbers that blasted Americans with calls purporting to be from the student loan collection agencies, vacation timeshare services and other bogus services that target consumers, often for financial gain. The carriers could then stop calls coming from those numbers.

It would be the responsibility of carriers to decide whether to charge their customers for the blocking service. Consumer groups have raised concerns that lower-income families would not be able to afford the feature.

"I strongly encourage carriers to begin providing these services by default, for free, to their current and future customers," Pai said.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner, said the agency had been too slow to act on robocalls.

"For too long the @FCC has wasted time holding workshops and summits instead of holding bad actors responsible," Rosenworcel said in a message on Twitter. "Today it finally proposes new policies to help block robocalls. I sincerely hope this is not too little, too late."