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Column: Phone companies could stop robocalls. They’re just not doing it

Stopping robocalls
The Federal Communications Commission wants more action from phone companies to protect customers from robocalls. Experts say this is possible, but expensive.
(Valeriy Kachaev / Getty Images)

The head of the Federal Communications Commission says robocalls and telemarketing produce more consumer complaints than any other telecom issue, and he wants phone companies to do something about it.

But don’t hold your breath. Experts say it’s technically feasible for phone companies to crack down on robocalls, but it’s unlikely the carriers will take on the necessary effort and expense.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a recent blog post that he’s written to the heads of all the major landline and wireless companies instructing them to step up their game and offer customers free call-blocking services. He’s also demanding that they come up with “concrete, actionable solutions” within 30 days.

And what do phone companies say? Not much.

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I reached out to every leading phone-service provider this week asking what technologies or initiatives they have in the works that would provide customers with meaningful protection from robocalls.

In response, most said only that they’re studying Wheeler’s remarks or steered me toward industry groups such as CTIA-the Wireless Assn., which represents mobile-communications firms.

CTIA emailed me a statement from a senior vice president, Tom Power, saying that “unwanted calls and texts are a consumer issue the wireless industry works hard to address and we look forward to working with the FCC to help address this challenge together.”

How’s that for a call to arms?

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“The carriers are always big on promises and self-regulation, but it doesn’t normally work that way,” said Christine Mailloux, staff attorney with the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco advocacy group. “Even if they have the ability to put their foot down and eliminate robocalls, they’ll probably have to be pushed harder to do it.”

Only one leading phone company promptly rose to the FCC’s challenge — sort of. AT&T said this week that the company’s chief executive, Randall Stephenson, will lead a newly formed “Robocalling Strike Force” whose goal will be “to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to abate the proliferation of robocalls and to make recommendations to the FCC on the role government can play in this battle.”

AT&T said it joins the FCC “in the commitment to bring the industry together to protect consumers from unwanted communications and to rid our communications networks of these unwanted and pernicious calls.” A company spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

It’s unclear how hard the FCC is willing to push on this matter. A blog post from the agency’s chairman, who has spoken out against robocalls in the past, isn’t exactly a regulatory mandate — and the phone companies know this.

A Robocalling Strike Force conjures up nifty images of phone-company commandos dropping out of helicopters and doing battle with evil telemarketers. But AT&T’s announcement was short on specifics and failed to address the key issue: Why aren’t phone companies already doing more?

At the moment, consumers’ best bet is filtering services such as Nomorobo, which aim to intercept robocalls near the finish line, prior to reaching people’s homes. However, such systems are imperfect and are easily defeated by robocallers switching lines.

If there’s to be real progress in stopping robocalls, most experts agree, it will have to come in the form of phone companies halting the offending calls where they originate, before they even get across the network.

Internet service providers routinely collaborate on fighting spam, recognizing a shared responsibility to protect customers from a tsunami of unwanted marketing pitches. It’s estimated that 86% of the world’s email traffic is spam, but only a small fraction of that total makes it into people’s inboxes.

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Two telecom-industry consultants, asking that their names be withheld because they didn’t want to anger clients, told me a robocall crackdown likely would have similar results. Phone companies probably could stop the vast majority of robocalls, they said, but not all of them.

I’m guessing most consumers would settle for that.

Ben Ferguson, senior network architect at Shamrock Consulting in Hermosa Beach, said carriers would need to develop algorithms capable of scanning their network and spotting flurries of short-duration calls — a telltale sign of a robocaller’s automated dialing system at work.

Most phone companies already say they won’t tolerate automated dialing systems on their networks. Trouble is, robocallers frequently hire third-party telecom firms to mix their calls with legitimate phone traffic, making it harder to spot them. Carriers thus would have to develop the means to see past this ruse and quickly block all short-duration calls emanating from a specific line. If the robocaller responds by switching lines, the carrier would need to keep pace.

Ferguson said such capabilities would require an investment of millions of dollars by each phone company, but there’s no technical barrier to getting the job done.

“The problem,” he said, “is that for the carriers, it’s a conflict of interest. All of these robocallers represent billable minutes. From a revenue standpoint, anything they do to crack down represents a reduction of billable traffic on their networks.”

For those reasons — a hefty investment, lost revenue — Ferguson concluded that all this talk of ending unwanted and pernicious robocalls is just that … talk.

“If I had to guess,” he said, “I’d say they won’t really do anything without a government mandate.”

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And that’s unlikely. While the FCC has proposed modest regulatory tweaks, such as limits on robocalls involving federal debt, a sweeping requirement that phone companies crush the practice seems doubtful.

You can be sure the carriers would unleash their Lobbying and Litigating Strike Force at the first hint of a tightening of official screws.

So props to the FCC for keeping robocalls in the public eye. But when phone companies announce in coming weeks that they’re working hard to fight robocalls — and they will — the answer to that should be: Not hard enough.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback todavid.lazarus@latimes.com.


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