FCC ruling could bolster robocall battle

FCC enjoins the battle to beat robocalling

The Federal Communications Commission could soon clear a path to help in the ongoing battle to fight unwanted and in many cases illegal robocalls and text messages.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing a number of changes that the FCC says would “close loopholes and strengthen consumer protections already on the books,” such as the widely used Do-Not-Call Registry. The FCC proposals were in response to industry players who sought clarity on how the Commission enforces the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

"The FCC wants to make it clear: Telephone companies can – and in fact should – offer consumers robocall-blocking tools," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a blog post. In the past some carriers we concerned that blocking automated calls could be construed as violations of the TCPA that requires them to ensure that all calls placed over their networks reach their intended recipients.

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A few of the FCC proposals would:

  • Empower Consumers to Say ‘Stop’ – Wireless and landline consumers would have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time.
  • Give Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology – Wireless and landline carriers could offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers. It would give the go-ahead for carriers to implement market-based offerings that consumers could use to stop unwanted robocalls.
  • Make Clear Reassigned Numbers Aren’t Loopholes – Consumers who inherit a phone number would not be subject to a barrage of unwanted robocalls to which a previous subscriber of the number consented. If a phone number has been reassigned, callers must stop calling the number after one call.
  • Define an Autodialer – An “autodialer” is any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers. The rulings would ensure robocallers cannot skirt consumer consent requirements through changes in calling technology design or by calling from a list of numbers.
  • Allow very limited and specific exceptions for urgent circumstances – Free calls or texts to, for example, alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills would be allowed. The proposal is very clear about what such messages can be and what they cannot be (i.e., no marketing or debt collection). In addition, consumers would have the ability to opt out of even these permitted calls and texts.
  • Limits on Informational Calls and Texts to Cell Phones – Under the TCPA, autodialed and prerecorded calls and texts to wireless phones require prior consent, whether they are telemarketing or informational calls. This includes calls related to debt collection. The Chairman’s proposal clarifies and reiterates these strong consumer protections. Informational calls to landline home phones are not restricted under the law.
  • No Exception for Political Calls – Political calls to wireless phones are subject to the general restrictions on prerecorded and artificial voice calls as well as autodialed calls. Political calls are not subject to the National Do-Not-Call Registry because such calls do not include telephone solicitations.

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The Consumers Union, which launched a national campaign to stop robocalls (Endrobocalls.org) said that more than 320,000 consumers have signed its petition calling on the top phone carriers to offer their customers free, effective call-blocking tools.

“This should clear the way for companies to offer the call-blocking tools that people want to stop robocalls from invading their homes morning, noon and night. Millions of fed-up consumers could finally get some real relief,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union in a statement.

The robocall scourge continues to confound as the Federal Trade Commission still fields about 300,00 complaints a month.

The FTC has held two crowdsourcing events to come up with new technologies that can beat back the robocallers, one of the most recent was last summer’s DEFCON where the FTC challenge was called, “Zapping Rachel,” a reference to the “Rachel from Cardholder Services” robocall scam the agency took out in 2012. The FTC’s Robocall Challenge in 2012 yielded nearly 800 new ideas on how to stop robocallers.

According to the FTC, the growth in robocalls has been enabled by technological changes that have drastically decreased the cost of making phone calls. Robocall companies use technical tricks to lower their costs even more. For example, some experts believe that the robo-voices that you hear on their calls are chosen, in part, because they are especially compressible--they can be transmitted at low data rates and still sound good.   This lets the robocallers cram more simultaneous calls through the same Internet connection.

The proposal will be voted on at the Commission’s Open Meeting on June 18, 2015.

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