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FCC's proposal to crack down on robocalls is a good move

The plan would clear the way for phone companies to offer call-blocking technology

Published: May 29, 2015 01:15 PM

Are you hounded by automated phone calls with recorded pitches for things like medical alert devices or home security systems? Do you get texts telling you to call now for a free cruise or vacation? You’re not alone.

Robocalls, robotexts, and telemarketing calls are the number-one source of consumer complaints at the Federal Communications Commission. Last year, the agency received more than 215,000 complaints related to unwanted calls and texts.

Many of us put our numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, which stops telemarketers from calling numbers on the list. But in recent years, scam artists have just ignored the registry and pestered people with calls around the clock, using technology that lets them hide or fake their caller ID information. And that, of course, makes it incredibly hard to trace the call and track them down.

Robocalls are more than annoying. Phone scams cost Americans an estimated $350 million a year.

The good news in all of this is that some relief might finally be in store for fed-up consumers. As part of his recently announced plan to crack down on robocalls, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is calling on phone companies to offer customers tools to block them.

This move was prompted by a stack of petitions at the FCC from banks, debt collectors, and other companies that actually wanted to loosen the rules for robocalls. Around the same time, 39 state attorneys general wrote a letter to the FCC urging the agency to clarify whether phone companies could legally offer call-blocking tools to their customers.

Wheeler has opted to use these petitions as an opportunity to stand up for consumers and curb these intrusions on our daily lives.“I am proposing that the Commission rule on more than 20 pending petitions related to consumer protection and send one clear message: consumers have the right to control the calls and texts they receive, and the FCC is moving to enforce those rights and protect consumers against robocalls, spam texts, and telemarketing,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler is now circulating a proposal to his fellow commissioners that would tighten and clarify the rules, close loopholes, and hold companies accountable.

In a positive move, Wheeler has declared that phone companies can offer customers call-blocking tools without violating the agency’s call-completion rules. Some companies have stubbornly resisted requests from consumers to provide such tools, maintaining that they did not have the legal authority to do so.

“[W]e are giving the green light for robocall-blocking technology,” Wheeler said. “The FCC wants to make it clear: telephone companies can—and in fact should—offer consumers robocall-blocking tools.”

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, strongly agrees. In February we launched a national campaign against robocalls at EndRobocalls.org. More than 320,000 consumers have signed our petition calling on the top phone carriers to offer their customers free, effective call-blocking tools.

We think this FCC proposal would clear the way to empower people with the technology they want and deserve to stop unwanted calls. The FCC appears ready to allow some auto-dialed calls in limited situations such as bank fraud and prescription refills, and we want to make sure there are adequate safeguards to prevent abuse.

The five members of the FCC are scheduled to vote on the proposal on June 18. We urge the commissioners to take the strongest possible action to let consumers, as the chairman said, exercise “the right to control the texts and calls they receive.”

To learn more about our campaign and sign our petition, visit EndRobocalls.org.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.


Read past installments of our Policy & Action feature.



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