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Consumer Groups Cheer After FCC Restricts Robocalls

By / Jun 22, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Advocacy groups such as Consumers Union are cheering a rule change by the Federal Communications Commission that will allow consumers to block pesky robocalls. However, a major telecom group says technical limitations remain.

What does the Federal Communications Commission get contacted about the most?

Robocalls, says Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“We receive thousands of complaints, and our friends across town at the FTC received tens of thousands more, at one point receiving nearly 200,000 in a single month,” she said, according to Consumerist.

Fortunately, the commission has a plan to fix things. On Thursday, June 18, the FCC approved technology that will allow consumers to block robocalls.

“It is time, long past time to do something about this,” Rosenworcel added.

The nonprofit organization Consumers Union, which owns Consumerist, has been pushing for action on the latest wave of spam calls in recent years, with its own national campaign. Its End Robocalls petition received over 330,000 signatures.

“Americans have had enough with robocalls that ring off the hook all day long, and often target them with the latest scams,” Tim Marvin, who leads the End Robocalls campaign, said in a statement. “Today’s FCC vote means the phone companies should stop stalling and start providing their customers with free tools to block these calls.”

Lessons From Do Not Call

But before you get too excited, it’s worth remembering that the FCC has been down this road before.

Back in 2003, the commission set up a national “Do Not Call” registry. Citizens could submit complaints, add their numbers, or see whether their numbers were already on the registry.

After adding their numbers to the donotcall.gov registry, citizens would not receive any calls from solicitors or spammers. It was a success—at first.

“We thought we had put an end to the plague of unwelcomed telemarketers who were interrupting Americans morning, noon and night,” U.S. Senator Susan Collins, from Maine, said at a June 10 Senate hearing on the issue. “But now, nearly 12 years later, phones are once again ringing off the hook.”

The surge was driven by changes in both strategy and technology by corporations.

“Technology has made it cheaper, and as a result there’s been an explosion in the number of calls—an explosion which has been aided by exploiting the wording of our rules to claim a loophole,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, according to Consumerist.

Establishments that want to advertise or solicit through phone calls today are now utilizing automated methods—even going so far as to use text messages.

“Clever lawyers have [started] the explosion in robocalls by claiming if the company substitutes software for hardware to drive the calls and/or does not call from a list, they are exempt from our rules,” Wheeler added.

Easier Said Than Done?

So it’s a green light: The FCC has approved technology that would block those pesky calls.

“Telephone companies face no legal barriers to allowing consumers to choose to use robocall-blocking technology,” the FCC said in a news release. Consumers have the right “to control the calls they receive.”

Now the ball is in the court of telecom groups such as USTelecom and CTIA: The Wireless Association. The former group, however, says the task could be easier said than done.

“Eliminating illegal or unwanted robocalls is a shared goal of industry, government and consumers,” Jonathan Banks, USTelecom’s senior vice president of law and policy, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there is no single technological solution to solving this problem, particularly given the recent widespread abuse of spoofed numbers by robocallers. USTelecom’s members will continue to develop and deploy tools to their customers in order to address these unwanted calls.”

The FCC ruled the only exceptions for automatic phone calls are for urgent messages, such as pharmacy notifications or bank alerts—the latter a huge victory for the banking industry, which had previously made its case to the FCC.

Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. More »

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