AT&T CEO Says He Will Head Up Anti-Robocall “Strike Force”

In response to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s call for all major phone companies to finally put free robocall-blocking tools in the hands of their customers, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson — who recently incorrectly blamed the FCC for his company’s failure to address this issue — says he is going to lead an industry “Strike Force” to combat robocalls.

According to the AT&T Public Policy Blog — a must-read for all fans of celebrity gossip and AT&T public policy news — explains that this new “Robocalling Strike Force” is to “accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to abate the proliferation of robocalls and to make recommendations to the FCC on the role government can play in this battle.”

While Wheeler’s letters to Stephenson and the other telecom CEOs didn’t explicitly call for something as puffed-up sounding as a Strike Force, the Chair did call on these companies to work together toward certain solutions.

Among those is the creation of a “Do Not Originate List,” which would block certain robocalls before they ever get to the end-user. Companies and government agencies whose numbers are frequently spoofed by robocall spammers will be registered on this list. If a phone company sees a call from one of these numbers coming from outside the U.S., that call will be blocked at the source.

So the IRS could still make calls, but scammers in Malta pretending to be from the IRS would have a much harder time of it.

In the blog post, AT&T affirmed its commitment to work with other stakeholders on this list. The company also stated that it will conform to emerging advanced caller ID verification standards.

An FCC source confirms to Consumerist that Stephenson was indeed asked by Chair Wheeler to take the reins of this Strike Force, though he’s a bit of an odd choice given his recent history on the issue.

In June, Stephenson said he hates robocalls just like everyone else, but that he needed the FCC’s permission to deploy call-blocking technology. That was not true, and AT&T later backtracked, saying that the problem was that current robo-blockers leave open the slim possibility that a legitimate call might be blocked.

Our colleagues at Consumers Union encouraged AT&T customers to let Stephenson know that they were okay with the risks and he had their permission to deploy this technology. Unfortunately, AT&T staff had not been properly briefed on these talking points, and gave excuses ranging from “AT&T would get hit with lawsuits” to “the FCC prohibited them from doing it.”

Tim Marvin, who heads up CU’s End Robocalls campaign says he is encouraged that Wheeler’s letters appear to be resulting in some action by the telecom industry.

“But consumers need more than just another set of vague promises from companies like AT&T about future solutions,” cautions Marvin. “AT&T should take advantage of existing technologies and offer their customers free call-blocking tools now.”

UPDATE: In a statement to the media, Wheeler both applauds AT&T’s response to his letter and confirms that he asked Stephenson to take control of the strike force.

“Since giving consumers meaningful control over the calls and texts they receive will require collective action by the industry; I am gratified that AT&T will lead an industry strike force to develop an action plan for providing consumers with robust robocall-blocking solutions,” says Wheeler. “Last week, I asked all the major phone companies to develop just such a plan; I strongly urge industry participants to join the effort and to produce conclusions within 60 days.”

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