FCC Plan To Let Phone Companies Block More Annoying Robocalls Moves Forward

Image courtesy of Consumerist

Many of the FCC’s most visible consumer protection moves — net neutrality, privacy — prove contentious within the Commission. But today, in a rare show of unanimity, all three sitting commissioners agreed with consumers about one big fact: Robocalls really, really suck, and the FCC is in a position to do something about it.

The Commission voted today to consider a proposal that would cut back on the number of spam and scam robocalls that make it to consumers’ phones.

The proposal comes in two parts — a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which suggests a new rule, and a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), which asks a question about what the FCC can or should do next, and invites stakeholders to submit their answers.

At the core of the NPRM is something called the “Do Not Originate” rule, which aims to cut off calls from some phone numbers before they ever get to the recipient. Under the proposed rule, owners of legitimate numbers would be able to stake a claim on their digits, making it easier for call-blocking tech to identify when someone fakes a call using your number.

The rule basically says that if you own the phone number 123-456-7890, then you can put that number on the Do Not Originate list. Once you do, phone companies are allowed to block calls IDing themselves as coming from 123-456-7890 if they originate somewhere else.

Not every owner of every phone number is going to put their numbers on the list, of course, and millions of illegally spoofed spam and scam calls would likely still be able to zip around the world. But creating and using a Do Not Originate list would cut back on certain kinds of fraud, particularly IRS scams, by allowing phone companies to block calls from scammers pretending to be the tax man when they call potentially vulnerable consumers.

Why not just make it illegal to imitate someone else’s phone number? First, the FCC doesn’t have the authority to write laws. Second, there are legitimate reasons to continue to allow legal spoofing. Spoofing a number for the purpose of fraud or abuse is already against the law.

In addition to being permitted to block spoofed calls from numbers on the Do Not Originate list, phone companies would be explicitly permitted to block numbers made from incomplete or invalid numbers, like combinations of area code and exchange that don’t exist.

In just a few short years, a proliferation of cheap tech and better broadband speeds around the globe have taken robocalls from an old-school inconvenience of landlines to an all-out digital scourge. In their remarks at today’s open meeting, FCC commissioners cited studies finding that American consumers get hit with an average of 2.2 to 2.4 billion illegal robocalls per month. Run the math, and that works out to an average of at least 7 illegal robocalls per month to every single American.

And scam robocalls proliferate because they work: Vulnerable consumers, particularly the elderly, get taken in to the tune of roughly $350 million per year. According to one study published late last year, commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in her remarks, a whopping 13% of all American adults have been victim to some kind of phone scam. And of those, half — so basically 7% of the U.S. population — were taken for between $100 and $10,000.

“Illegal robocalls are not just a dinner-table annoyance,” Clyburn said, when she explained the economic impact. “This calls for a multi-pronged, high-powered approach” in which the FCC, industry, and consumer-empowering tools can all work together.

“I am optimistic that we have the opportunity to make a real dent in the problem,” she concluded.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly took his opportunity to bash the previous FCC for actions it took on robocalls in 2015, saying that the way in which former chair Tom Wheeler’s commission approached illegal robocalls also had a terrible negative effect on every business that sends legal automated calls and texts.

However, O’Rielly announced himself firmly in favor of today’s order, which, he stressed, only targets illegal robocalls.

“It is hard to even imagine a lawful reason for a caller to appear to place calls from invalid numbers” nor numbers not assigned to any provider, O’Rielly conceded.

He stressed, however, that his central concern in the NOI — the FCC’s set of questions asking what else it can do, and how it can do it — is to keep protecting legal robocallers.

“The challenge [in the NOI] is finding the right criteria to block illegal robocalls” without also accidentally scooping up legitimate callers, O’Rielly said. “The commission may need to create a safe harbor to protect businesses” that use best practices, but that find themselves using occasional out-of-date customer contact data.

Chairman Ajit Pai wrapped up the proceeding by quoting emails his office had received from a couple of frustrated consumers.

“This is the wild west, an area of lawlessness,” one read. “It is the FCC’s job to find a solution. Please do it fast.”

“There are millions of Americans who are as fed up by illegal robocalls as [these consumers],” Pai continued. “I am one of them; [commissioner Clyburn’s mother] would seem to be another. Robocalls are the number one complaint the FCC receives from the American public, and it’s no wonder.”

“This must change,” he concluded, “and today we lay the foundation for changing it.”

The End Robocalls campaign run by our colleagues at Consumers Union has gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures from Americans who just want their phone companies to help them block these annoying, and often unlawful, calls. So it makes sense that CU is applauding today’s vote.

“This proposal is a positive step that will help provide relief from the scourge of unwanted calls,” said Maureen Mahoney, CU policy analyst. “But consumers have waited long enough for action. It’s time for the phone companies to start offering free call-blocking solutions to all of their consumers.”

The NPRM itself, meanwhile, sprang from a recommendation by the Robocall Strike Force, which asked the FCC for clarity regarding what kinds of changes the industry is allowed to make to stem the tide of robocalls reaching consumers. So with this done, what does the Strike Force’s future look like?

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Pai sang the Strike Force’s praises — but hedged about its future.

“The strike force gave us a framework for thinking about these issues, and we’re taking some of the ideas that they gave us and we’re trying to create a framework that will allow the public sector and the private sector to work together to stop the scourge of civilization,” Pai said to Consumerist.

But will they keep meeting? Not so much.

“Right now we don’t have any specific plans with respect to the Strike Force reconvening,” Pai admitted. “They’ve given us a lot to chew on and we have a terrific staff that is analyzing these issues in much detail, and I’m sure we’re going to be working collaboratively with them in one form or another in the future.”