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FCC's robocall blocking plan may finally give you some relief

The agency is giving wireless carriers the green light to "aggressively block" these annoying calls by default.

robocall-crop

How many robocalls are you expecting today?

Jason Schneider

Americans are fed up with robocalls. And the Federal Communications Commission are giving carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile the power to do something about it.

On Thursday, the FCC voted unanimously on a proposal to give mobile phone companies greater power to "aggressively block" unwanted robocalls

"This FCC will stand with American consumers, not with those who are badgering them with these unwanted robocalls," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

The rules will now allow wireless carriers to block those robocalls for customers by default. Companies will also allow consumers to block calls from unknown numbers themselves. Customers can opt into or out of any blocking services. Pai released details of the agency's proposal last month.

But be warned: The plan could also interfere with calls from your doctor and drugstore, too.

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The pressure to do something about robocalls has been mounting. In April, Congress expressed frustration with illegal robocalls and reintroduced bipartisan legislation called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Defense, or TRACED Act. The bill would improve enforcement policies, criminalize illegal robocalling and require phone companies to use a new technology that can validate that calls are originating where they claim to be coming from. In addition, the protocol would allow for faster tracing of illegal robocalls. The bill has passed the US Senate and is headed to the House, where it has bipartisan support.

The number of unwanted robocalls skyrocketed 46% from 2017 to 2018. A January report from Hiya, a caller ID service, said there were 26.3 billion robocalls made in the US in 2018. The number breaks down to an average of 10 monthly calls per person.

The FCC has said frustration over robocalls is the No. 1 complaint it receives from consumers, amounting to hundreds of thousands of grievances filed with the agency every year. This latest move by the FCC will allow carriers to block illegal or unwanted calls before they even reach consumers.

"When consumers complain to us, they don't distinguish between illegal calls, scam calls, telemarketing calls and spoofed calls," Pai said in a USA Today op-ed Thursday. "They simply lump them together under one category: unwanted.

Blocking legit calls

Wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have applauded the proposal, stating that allowing them to have more powerful tools could help stem the flow of these calls. But some companies say that the FCC's policy may be too broad, allowing carriers to block robocalls from legitimate sources by default.

That's why several trade groups, including ACA International, which represents credit and collection companies, the American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management, the Credit Union National Association and the American Bankers Association met with FCC officials last week to express their concerns.

"Despite the FCC's very well-intentioned efforts to target these bad actors, the draft Declaratory Ruling is facially overbroad in its attempt to meet the laudable objective of stopping illegal robocalls," ACA International said in a filing with the FCC. The group said the proposed rules could "mislabel lawful calls as scam or fraud," which would "allow the blocking of legitimate and needed calls with no notice of the blocking, no required recourse, and no required correction."

What kinds of calls might be blocked? Automated calls from pharmacies, doctors' offices, customer service support and credit card fraud protection alerts are among the calls that could inadvertently be caught in the automatic call-blocking net, according to attorneys Melissa Gomberg,  Kimberly Freedman, and Erin Kolmansberger of Nelson Mullins Broad and Cassel, who frequently defend companies being sued in class action lawsuits over violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

"There are legitimate reasons to use an auto dialer or to use spoofing," Gomberg said in an interview. "Doctors' offices routinely spoof numbers so that the number that shows up when a physician calls a patient isn't a personal number."

Callbacks from support centers could also be blocked. She said the FCC policy as written would allow carriers to block these calls by default without ever letting the consumer know that such a call had been attempted, causing patients to miss important health information or consumers waiting for technical support that never comes. 

"There's already a lot of confusion around what's legal or illegal when it comes to autodialers under the TCPA, and this just adds another layer of complexity," she added. "Classifying a call as 'unwanted' is so subjective."

The FCC's Pai acknowledged the criticism in the USA Today op-ed.

"I'll concede that not everyone is happy about my proposal," he wrote, citing debt collectors and other robocallers who had asked for the vote to be delayed. "But the Americans whom I hear from want relief from the flood of unwanted robocalls now. They don't want us to wait."

At least one FCC commissioner, Michael O'Rielly, understands the nuance of this argument. And he expressed his concern during the vote, but ultimately supported the biggest portion of the item. He said the FCC's efforts to combat illegal and fraudulent robocalls "should not restrict or prevent beneficial robocalls to ensure lawful calls are delivered to consumers."  

Robocalls costs higher than you think

But officials at the FCC say that illegal robocalls aren't just annoying, they're also costing American consumers at least $3 billion every year.

"Illegal robocalls are not just a drain on individual households' peace of mind, they are also a drain on our economy," FCC Chief Economist Babette Boliek and Chief Technology Officer Eric Burger wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

The FCC said that data from YouMail suggests there were 2.5 billion illegal robocalls in March 2019 alone. That $3 billion annual cost to consumers is just for lost time alone. The estimate is likely low given that it doesn't include monetary losses from fraud, the agency said.

These officials also argue that giving carriers the option to automatically block illegal robocalls without forcing consumers to opt-in for the service is what consumers want and need.

"Inertia is an obstacle for many consumers who otherwise would take part in a call-blocking program," FCC officials said in the blog post Wednesday.  In that blog post, Boliek and Burger explained that smaller service providers have told the agency that convincing consumers to sign up for a call-blocking program rather than offering it by default is too costly and ineffective.

Call-blocking technology provider Hiya estimates that 95% of its customers choose to remain on its opt-out call-blocking program while only 20% choose to join its opt-in program.  

"Setting a call-blocking service as the default can significantly increase consumer participation while keeping consumer choice," the FCC officials said.  

By making it harder to reach consumers via robocalls, they argued this will break the economic model that drives scammers to use robocall technology.

"Finally, when phone companies block unwanted calls," the blog post said, "robocall campaigns will be much less economical to inflict on the consumer."

Originally published June 5 at 1:59 p.m. PT.
Update June 6 at 6:15 a.m. PT: Adds comments from Ajit Pai's USA Today op-ed. At 8:20 a.m. PT: Adds information from the FCC vote.