After 60 Days, What Has The “Robocall Strike Force” Accomplished?

Two months ago, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson accepted the challenge of FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to head up an industry-led “Strike Force” to finally do something meaningful to curb unwanted, often illegal, robocalls, and to give consumers free tools they can use to try to block these calls. The team was given 60 days to get this ship headed in the right direction, and now that time has passed a verdict is in: Much was accomplished, but consumers still don’t have the tools they need.

“A job well-planned is a job half-done,” noted FCC Chair Tom Wheeler at yesterday’s review of the Strike Force’s 60-day report [PDF], while simultaneously commending the team — which includes representatives from all the major wireless, broadband, and bandwidth providers — for grinding out 100 meetings over the course of just two months.

“I recognize that you all have day jobs,” said Wheeler, who later referenced AT&T’s recently announced merger with Time Warner Inc. by joking with Stephenson that “You haven’t stopped your day job, it seems.”

When the Strike Force launched, it was tasked with three main goals: develop robust call-blocking tools for consumers; speed up implementation of next-generation caller ID authentication; and develop a “Do Not Originate” list that can be used to stop certain suspicious calls closer to the source.

While the Strike Force made progress in all three areas, both the industry and the FCC acknowledged that much work still needs to be done.

For example, while the team did begin work on a network-to-device information sharing framework that could ultimately improve call-blocking technology, it hasn’t given a deadline for completing this project.

Likewise, the Strike Force worked with the FCC on this consumer outreach page on that links to call-blocking information for several providers and devices, the companies themselves have largely yet to implement free tools for their customers to use. And, as our partners at Consumer Reports pointed out this week, the call-blocking services offered by providers are not created equal.

It’s a similar story on the back end, where the Strike Force was able to to expedite development of new caller ID standards that would make it more difficult for scammers to use spoofing technology to cloak their location. While the team committed to rollout milestones for these standards, Chair Wheeler expressed concerns that consumers will still be left having to deal with scammy robocalls.

“There will be no consumer impact until those standards are implemented,” said Wheeler, who called on all the companies involved to commit to continuing to exceed the current targets for implementing these upgrades.

One definite bright spot in the Strike Force report was the apparent success of a limited test of a “Do Not Originate” list using numbers that actually belong to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is a favorite for scammers who want to trick victims into believing they owe back taxes. But the Strike Force says that by blocking calls from IRS numbers that are not used to make outgoing calls, it demonstrated a significant decrease in IRS-related scam complaints.

“It is now time to expand that trial, to get it off of trial status, make it the real deal — to expand the number of numbers, and to expand the number of carriers,” declared Wheeler. “There is no reason why that can’t start happening today.”

Recovery Fees?

As we showed in our line-by-line breakdowns of cable and broadband bills, these companies love to charge “recovery” fees to ostensibly get back some of the money they spend complying with federal regulations.

The Strike Force report (see p. 38 of the PDF linked above) makes the case for providers to recoup robocall-related expenses through a variety of possible avenues. Congress could just give them this money; or they could offer basic call-blocking services for free but charge for access to a premium tier that would offer more benefits; or a “small surcharge or fee… applied to the customer’s monthly bill for the entire customer base.”

Wheeler did not appear terribly thrilled with these suggestions.

“Let me be the first to say that the FCC will look to see how we can reduce costs, but stopping unwanted calls is as much a business expense as marketing and billing,” he explained. “Providing a quality service is a cost of doing business.”

No Handoffs

The report makes mention of “handoffs” to standards bodies or to trade groups like US Telecom who would handle the next steps in the various development and deployment process. Again, this seemed to rub Wheeler the wrong way.

“There is no handoff,” he told the Strike Force. “This is not out-of-sight, out-of-mind. These organizations work for the people in this room, and it is the people in this room who must continue the responsibility of making sure that the kind of plan that has been laid out is in fact delivered upon.”

To that end, Stephenson and Wheeler agreed to reconvene the Strike Force for a sequel in six months “so that we can look at exactly what has happened. Are we on the timetable, achieving the deliverables that this group has laid out?”

The goal, said Wheeler is for consumers to have “something that is actually happening, not something that is being talked about.”

“Half A Loaf”

Our colleagues at Consumers Union, whose End Robocalls campaign has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures from people looking for free call-blocking tools now, concurs with the notion that the Strike Force’s work is far from finished.

“This latest plan is half a loaf, if that,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union. “These efforts are aimed at getting better solutions in the future, but consumers need relief now. The phone companies should take immediate action by offering their customers the best call-blocking protection currently available.”

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