Robocalls—those annoying, unsolicited recorded messages that now even pretend to be delivered from your area code—are the No. 1 source of consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, its chairman, Tom Wheeler, said in a July 22 blog post announcing he'd taken new steps to stop them.
"I have sent letters to the CEOs of major wireless and wireline phone companies calling on them to offer call-blocking services to their customers now—at no cost to you," Wheeler wrote in the post.
He didn't share the contents of the letter.
Consumerist, however, reports that Wheeler wrote to the CEOs of AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon, telling them: "Nothing in the Commission's rules and orders prevents [phone companies] from offering customers robocall blocking technology. I strongly urge you to offer your customers robust call blocking at no cost."
Wheeler also wrote to the "intermediary carriers" that he said connect robocallers to the phone companies and reminded them of "their responsibility to help facilitate the offering of blocking technologies."
Further, Wheeler said he has called on standards groups, in addition to the carriers, to accelerate the "development and deployment of technical standards that would prevent spoofing of caller ID and thus make blocking technologies more effective, as was done in the battle against spam years ago."
Wheeler has asked all of these companies to respond with "concrete, actionable solutions" within 30 days.
Chuck Hamby, executive director of Corporate Communications at Verizon, told eWEEK: "Verizon stops many robocalls before they can get to customers. We monitor our networks to detect spikes in suspicious calls, and then work with law enforcement and with other telephone companies to shut down illegal robocallers. We also support federal legislation to better go after the source—the scammers who make these calls."
Fighting the Robocallers
Consumers already have some robocall-fighting tools available to them.
Through the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, anyone can sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry.
The Consumers Union has also asked the carriers to block robocallers that circumvent the Do Not Call list. Phone scams, the watchdog group estimates, cost Americans around $350 million a year.
Verizon's Hamby noted that there are apps consumers can install to stop robocalls, and often there are features within consumers' existing phone service that can help. Some services, for example, can be programmed to only pick up recognized calls. There's also an Anonymous Call Rejection tool.
To date, the FCC has brought 105 enforcement actions against companies for violating Do Not Call requests, 80 of which have been resolved. The largest litigation of a Do Not Call violation was against the Mortgage Investors and resulted in civil penalty payments of $7.5 million.
In total, the FCC says it has recovered more than $41 million in civil penalties and $33 million in redress or disgorgement.
Still, Wheeler acknowledged, "Consumers would rather not receive unwanted calls in the first place, making pro-active intervention preferable to after-the-fact enforcement. … Today, we urge carriers to step up to take that responsibility."
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told the Dallas Morning News in May that he's also plagued by robocalls and has installed a solution on his phone—but he was helpless to install a solution on the network.
"There will be rules around this," Stephenson said, according to the report. "We don't go in and just start discriminately blocking calls going to people without their permission, without the appropriate authority. I don't want to be on the front page because we blocked somebody's call, if it was a life-saving call of some kind, right?"
In short, Stephenson said the carriers need the FCC's permission. Which it sounds like they now have.
Requests for comment from AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint went unanswered.