Disrupting the lives of millions of Americans, telemarketers and scammers are routinely using technological advances to automatically dial phone numbers and circumvent the popular Do Not Call list.
Now a top federal regulator wants to make it easier for consumers to stop those so-called robocalls, which have become a bigger problem in recent years as they've spread from land-line phones to wireless devices.
A proposal by the head of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday would strengthen consumers' rights and give phone companies the green light to offer technologies to block most robocalls and spam text messages.
“Few things rankle consumers as much as unwanted calls and texts,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “The FCC wants to make it clear: Telephone companies can — and in fact should — offer consumers robocall-blocking tools.”
The agency received 215,000 complaints about robocalls and texts last year, more than on any other issue. The Federal Trade Commission, which jointly runs the National Do Not Call Registry with the FCC, said it receives more than 150,000 complaints about robocalls each month.
Under Wheeler's plan, consumers could more easily stop these robocalls by simply telling the caller “in any reasonable way at any time” to stop calling. Currently, companies often require written notification if consumers want the calls to stop.
The rules would also prevent a consumer with a new phone number from being subjected to robocalls authorized by the previous owner. Companies that use automatic dialing technology would have to stop after making just one call once learning the number has been reassigned.
There would be limited exceptions for free robocalls or texts to alert consumers of possible fraud to their bank accounts or remind them to refill medication. Consumers could opt out
of those calls and texts as well.
The biggest change would be making it clear to phone companies that they can offer blocking technology to their customers, said Tim Marvin, who manages the EndRobocalls.org campaign for Consumers Union.
“We want companies to stop the calls from getting to your phone in the first place,” he said.
More than 300,000 people have signed the consumer group's online petition demanding that phone companies “provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach my phone.” The campaign, launched in February, is the fastest-growing in Consumers Union's history, Marvin said.
Last year, industry officials said during a Senate hearing that there were legal barriers to offering call-blocking technology. In response, attorneys general from 36 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam wrote to Wheeler urging the FCC to clarify the matter.
“State law enforcement officials are doing everything possible to track down and prosecute those that engage in illegal telemarketing,” the attorneys general wrote. “However, law enforcement cannot fight this battle alone.”
They noted blocking technologies are available, including Nomorobo, a program invented by Aaron Foss, founder of Telephone Science Corp. It blocks those calls coming from known telemarketing numbers.
It was the co-winner of a 2013 FTC contest to develop new ways to stop robocalls. Marvin said such technology would work even better if it were offered by the phone companies, which would be in a better position to identify telemarketers' numbers.
Phone companies on Wednesday did not commit to offering blocking technologies if the FCC approves the proposals at its June 18 meeting. The measure is expected to be approved.
US Telecom, a trade group whose members include AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., said that it “supports the FCC's efforts to provide consumers with options to mitigate unwanted phone calls, and to take strong enforcement actions against illegal robocallers.”
Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA — The Wireless Assn., said the trade group's member companies, which include AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc., “have sought to empower customers, through education and the development of tools to block fraudulent and unwanted communications.”
He noted there are apps and services available to stop robocalls. The group was reviewing Wheeler's proposals and was “committed to working with all interested parties to help protect consumers while preserving choice and promoting innovation.''
The Do Not Call Registry was established in 2003 and had 218 million actively registered phone numbers as of Sept. 30. In most cases, telemarketers are not allowed to call numbers on the list. And most telemarketing robocalls have been illegal since 2009.
But technological advances have made it easier for telemarketers to route calls over the Internet or dial from overseas, circumventing the U.S. law, Marvin said. “Crooks don't care about the Do Not Call list.”
“Virtually every American is signed up for the Do Not Call list, and if you ask them they've probably received a robocall in the past week,” Marvin said. “Unfortunately, the technology has surpassed the Do Not Call list.”