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US gives your phone company the OK to block more robocalls

The FCC approves new rules letting phone companies block calls likely to be from fraudsters because they're dialed from certain types of numbers.

Man screaming into mobile phone

The FCC approved new rules that could cut down on the number of illegal robocalls. 

Getty Images

Soon, your phone company may be blocking more of those obnoxious, automated robocalls pitching you solar panels or pretending to be a tax collection agency.

Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules to stanch a flood of unwanted, illegal robocalls, by allowing phone companies to proactively block calls likely to be fraudulent because they're from certain types of phone numbers.

Illegal robocalls are pervasive and growing: US consumers were bugged by 2.4 million unwanted calls every month last year, according to an FCC report. But they're tricky to stamp out. Some important legal messages, like weather alerts and calls from schools and public utilities, are also made using automated call technology, and advancements in technology have made it cheap and easy to make robocalls and "spoof" Caller ID information.

The FCC's new rules authorize phone companies to block robocalls that appear to be from telephone numbers that do not or cannot make outgoing calls. They can block calls purporting to be from a phone number placed on a "do not originate" list by the number's subscriber. They will also be allowed to block calls purporting to be from invalid numbers, like those with area codes that don't exist, from numbers that have not been assigned to a provider, and from numbers allocated to a provider but not currently in use.

To minimize the blocking of lawful calls, the FCC's recommended companies establish a simple way to identify and fix blocking errors. The rules also prohibit providers from blocking 911 emergency calls.

However, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel criticized the move for lacking a mandate that such services should be free. 

"While the agency offers carriers the ability to limit calls from what are likely to be fraudulent actors, it fails to prevent them from charging consumers for this service. So this is the kicker: the FCC takes action to ostensibly reduce robocalls but then makes sure you can pay for the privilege," she said. "If you ask me, that's ridiculous."

First published Nov. 16, 10:08 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:38 p.m.: Adds quote from Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.