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Phone companies and all 50 states strike deal to fight robocalls

Robocalls
A woman looks at a call log displayed via a robocall-fighting app.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and 10 other large phone companies have struck an agreement with 51 attorneys general to enact technology to block robocalls before they reach people.

The deal, announced Thursday, will help protect consumers from receiving illegal robocalls and will assist law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting bad actors, said North Carolina Atty. Gen. Josh Stein, who is leading the effort that includes all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Under the nonbinding deal, the companies will launch the call-blocking technology at no cost to consumers and will make other anti-robocall devices and apps available free of charge to subscribers.

“By signing on to these principles, industry leaders are taking new steps to keep your phone from ringing with an unwanted call,” Stein said in a statement.

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The companies are under pressure to protect their customers from the unwanted calls, which are a top source of complaints with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Nationwide there were 48 billion robocalls last year, up from 31 billion in 2017, according to a tally by YouMail Inc., a developer of software that blocks the calls.

In July, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile US Inc. said they were making progress toward installing technology to authenticate calls so customers would know if a call was coming from the person supposedly making it. The FCC has demanded the technology be in place by the end of the year.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agreements with the states “align with the FCC’s own anti-robocalling and spoofing efforts,” including the agency’s caller authentication standards.

“Few things can bring together policy leaders across the political spectrum like the fight against unwanted robocalls,” Pai said in a statement. “The FCC is committed to working together with Congress, state leaders and our federal partners to put an end to unwanted robocalls.”

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People are often duped into answering calls because they appear to be from a local number or business.

“The bad actors running these deceptive operations will soon have one call left to make: to their lawyers,” New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James said in the statement.

The other companies that signed the agreement are T-Mobile, CenturyLink Inc., Comcast Corp., Sprint Corp., Bandwidth Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Consolidated Communications Holdings Inc., Frontier Communications Corp., U.S. Cellular Corp. and Windstream Holdings Inc.

The FCC has demanded that carriers adopt the system to digitally validate phone calls passing through the complex web of networks. The agency also has said that providers may block calls, and cast a preliminary vote to require the digital authentication if carriers fail to install it by year’s end.

Several of the top U.S. carriers issued statements in concert with the state attorneys general announcement. While the group as a whole backed the effort, there were few if any new, specific anti-spam call actions or time lines mentioned.

“It’s imperative that we stand together on a common set of goals that include stopping callers from hiding their identities, working with other carriers on efforts to trace back illegal calls to the source, and keeping the originators from sending robocalls in the first place,” Verizon said in a statement.

“The fight against the scourge of illegal robocalls requires all hands on deck, and we welcome and appreciate the support of the state attorneys general,” AT&T said in a statement.


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