Phone companies empowered to crackdown on robocalls

Consumers who don't want to receive robocalls on their landlines and mobile phones could see a noticeable reduction after a vote Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to allow phone companies to block numbers without customers' permission.

"That will allow phone companies to implement new technologies that will block calls from certain numbers if they have reason to believe that call is coming from a spoofed number an illegal number," said Ted Mermin, the interim Executive Director at the UC Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice.

Mermin says the FCC's ruling is a major step toward cracking down on robocalls which have proliferated with the availability of cheap software. Robocalls often autodial customers using fake telephone numbers that appear similar to the target person's own phone number, a technique called spoofing.

Mermin says even though he himself is on a "do not call" list, he still receives about one dozen robocalls a day. 

person. According to the call-blocking company YouMail, there are about 5 billion robocalls per month in the U.S.

The FCC ruling does have some drawbacks. It does not require phone companies to implement new technology. It also does not impose any penalties for phone companies who do nothing. 

"That is a significant loophole in the law. If phone companies don't feel like doing this, if they feel like the problem is the robocallers themselves and not the carriers you're not going to see any improvement," said Mermin.

"I do think they're somewhat of an invasion of people's privacy. We should try to guard our privacy I think," said Cynthia Johnson, a Berkeley resident. 

The FCC ruling does not require phone companies to provide robocall blocking for free.

"That leaves open the possibility that they will charge fees for the privilege of having your number protected from robocallers," said Mermin, "If that happens, we may end up with a two-tier system...where people who are able to pay, pay those fees. Folks who can't afford to pay those fees, remain in exactly the place they are now." 

"They're annoying, they're bothersome, they're a waste of time," said Katie Baer of Oakland, who adds consumers should not have to pay for call-blocking services, "No I don't think we should have to pay for that. It shouldn't be happening." 

The rules will let consumers "opt out" and ask their phone company not to block anything.

Mermin says in the coming year consumers should note whether they see a significant reduction in robocalls.

"And if there's not, I think people should be going back to the FCC, back to Congress, back to their state legislatures and say let's do something about this," said Mermin.

Automated callers could circumvent new safety measures by buying real numbers and using those to call you. They could hack into businesses and hijack the phone lines, then use those to call out. T-Mobile said it has already seen that happen.

Verizon said it will "evolve" its free call-blocking tool for wireless customers and be able to provide spam alerts and blocking more broadly, but spokesman Richard Young said there will not be "short term across-the-board blocking." He did not say how Verizon plans to change its offerings for landline customers, who today can sign up for a third-party blocking service. 

AT&T did not answer questions about its plans but said it is committed to fighting illegal and unwanted calls. 

T-Mobile said it hasn't made a decision yet on whether to make default free call-blocking tools. Sprint, which charges for its call-blocking service, said last week that it was looking at "additional solutions" and was optimistic that the changes would let it "take more aggressive actions."

The industry has been working on a system that will ensure that the number that comes up on people's phones is real. That's only beginning to roll out, and to work well, all the phone companies have to implement it. There's no hard government deadline, but Pai has threatened regulatory action if it doesn't happen this year. Thursday's vote took procedural steps to make it easier to enforce that threat against major phone companies.

The Senate, with near-unanimous support, passed a bill in May that would give phone companies an 18-month deadline to put this anti-spoof system, called Stir/Shaken, in place, as well as give regulators more tools to go after scammers. But it's not clear how the bill will fare in the Democrat-controlled House, which has several anti-robocall proposals that go further.