FCC ruling could finally make telecoms eradicate 'robocalls'

Consumers and regulators have repeatedly asked telecom companies to block 'robocalls.' They've refused and issued excuses in the past, but a recent letter from 44 U.S. AGs and a new FCC ruling may finally force them to take action.

I don't want to seem cranky or brash, but I really wish "Rachel" would stop calling me. Remember Rachel? That feminine voice on the other end of those "robocalls," telling you she's from cardholder services, a non-existent outfit that tries to scam the unsuspecting?

Despite millions of complaints from consumers on the receiving end of unwanted telemarketing calls, the big phone companies are unwilling to use readily available technology to block them. This week, the attorneys general (AGs) of 44 states and Washington D.C. wrote a letter to the CEOs of five major telecommunications companies (AT&T, CenturyLink, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) to tell them to cut off Rachel and her obnoxious cohorts.

Here we go again...

This isn't first time state and federal officials tried to resolve the problem. In March, 39 state attorneys general petitioned the FCC and asked the agency to shut down the robocallers.

At the time, the carriers said they didn't have legal authority to block those unwanted calls, and it wasn't clear if that was the truth. Then last month, in a ruling that didn't get much attention, the FCC said its rules do indeed allow call blocking. That's where the 45 AGs come in.

Rather than relying on the states to stop illegal robocalling, "The better solution is to stop intrusive calls before they ever reach the consumer," the AGs wrote in their letter. Now that the FCC has approved call blocking technology for consumers, it's time for the carriers to offer it, the AGs say. (The letter was sent to the telecom companies on Wednesday, and they have not yet responded.)

Robocall problem is getting worse

The issue is all the more frustrating because it is illegal to make marketing calls to consumers who are on the "Do Not Call" list. At times, the government catches up with violators and levies big fines. For example, in 2013 the FTC ordered Rachel's owners to knock off the "robocalls" to landlines and hit them with a $9.2 million fine. But Rachel is still placing calls, or at least it seems like she is. It turns out she's a computer program used by other scammers, according to Mitch Katz, a spokesman for the FTC. Each month, the agency gets approximately 260,000 complaints about robocalls, Katz says.

Robocalls are also going wireless. I received a few myself, and as more and more people drop landline service and move to mobile phones, robocallers will likely follow.

Most maddening of all, consumers have been complaining about this for years, and government agencies keep saying they'll do something about it but don't succeed. While doing research for this story, I dug up another related CIO.com story about the FTC cracking down on robocallers — it was published in 2009.

Maybe this time we can finally say goodbye to Rachel ... but I wouldn't count on it.

This story, "FCC ruling could finally make telecoms eradicate 'robocalls'" was originally published by CIO.


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