More suspected robocalls can be blocked

“There is one thing in our country that unites Republicans and Democrats.”

By Tony Romm / The Washington Post

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved new rules that could make it easier for AT&T, Verizon and other telecom giants to block suspected spam calls on behalf of their subscribers, a move meant to crack down on the ever-worsening scourge a month after robocallers rang Americans’ phones nearly 5 billion times.

Under the order, telecom carriers now have a legal green-light to enroll consumers in their call-blocking services by default, as opposed to waiting for customers to sign up for such tools on their own. The change would “make it easier for consumers” to get robocall relief, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, noting that many people often are unaware such technology exists in the first place.

“There is one thing in our country that unites Republicans and Democrats,” Pai said. “They are sick and tired of being bothered by unwanted robocalls.”

Pai’s proposal cleared the commission with bipartisan support, but not without some reservations from Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who expressed concern that the agency did not require AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to offer their call-blocking services for free. The omission could lead to higher prices on subscribers’ monthly wireless bills, she warned.

“I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop,” Rosenworcel said. “I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up.”

The FCC’s vote Thursday comes amid heightened pressure – particularly from the public – for the U.S. government and the nation’s top telecom carriers to crack down on billions of unwanted spam calls, many of which are attempts to trick recipients into surrendering their personal information. Last year, the agency received more than 232,000 complaints from consumers frustrated with spam calls, FCC officials said.

The FCC also permitted AT&T, Verizon and other carriers to create new tools that might allow consumers to block calls coming from anyone other than the contacts already stored in their address books. And commissioners advanced debate on an additional order that would shield telecom giants from legal liability if they erroneously block calls that they cannot authenticate as legitimate.

In doing so, though, the FCC stopped short of a broader rewrite of the nation’s anti-robocall rules, an overhaul that consumer groups have urged both the agency and Congress to consider. Organizations like the National Consumer Law Center and Consumers Union told the telecom agency in February that they welcomed the FCC’s recent work but fretted it’s only a “stopgap measure that will do little to address the larger problem.”

Meanwhile, Pai’s proposal triggered a groundswell of industry lobbying, particularly on the part of financial institutions, debt collectors and hospitals. They met in May with the FCC chairman’s top aides to express concern that the new call-blocking rules could “in the erroneous blocking of lawful, and often urgent, calls affecting consumer health, safety, and financial well-being,” according to agency records. That includes local utility outages, healthcare reminders and vehicle recall notices, they said, which they feared might be labeled as spam.

For now, the nation’s top four carriers have said little about how they plan to proceed now that the FCC has opened the door for them to offer call-blocking tools by default. The FCC’s recent efforts on call blocking are not mandatory, meaning telecom giants simply could choose not to change their practices. But Pai and his peers said they didn’t expect any new offerings to result in higher prices for consumers, given the savings that telecom giants might realize as a result of reducing robocall traffic on their networks.

“Now it its time for telecom companies to take the baton,” Pai said.

Ahead of the vote, AT&T said it would review the FCC’s order but did not comment further on whether it would change its practices or if it would charge consumers for any new call-blocking tools it offers. One of its tools, a free app known as Call Protect, requires users to download and enable it.

Verizon said it “intend[s] to use this new authority that the FCC is giving us to more effectively protect our customers from robocalls,” pointing out that one of its robocall-blocking services, called Call Filter, is already available for free to subscribers.

T-Mobile says it offers two services for free – Scam ID, a default-on tool that alerts users to suspected fraudulent calls, and Scam Block, a default-off tool that prevents users from receiving them, on a free basis. It did not offer further comment on the FCC’s plans.

Sprint, which offers a premium call-blocking service for a monthly fee, said it is “optimistic the chairman’s most recent proposed changes will allow us to take more aggressive action in addressing this issue.” It did not comment further on future pricing or availability.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Business Briefs: State minimum wage rises in January

Also, Boeing workers’ donations support local nonprofits and fundraiser for businesses impacted by Bolt Creek wildfire.

Jollee Nichols, right, and daughter Ruby, 2, work on an art project together at the Imagine Children’s Museum on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
With new addition, Imagine Children’s Museum doubles in size

More than just space, the Everett museum’s new $25 million wing is an investment in mental health.

Artistic rendering of 526 Speedway exterior. (Mosaic Avenue Realty Ltd.)
Mosaic Homes looks to add industrial condo space in Mukilteo

Mosaic Homes steps into commercial real estate development with 526 Speedway, an industrial condo project.

Andy Illyn with a selection of his greeting cards, Cardstalked, that are sold at What’s Bloomin’ Floral on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Adventure-seeking cop finds new thrill in greeting cards

Mukilteo assistant police chief Andy Illyn unwinds by turning puns and dad jokes into greeting cards.

Dan Murphy, left, Mary Fosse and Rex Habner. ( / Snohomish & Island County Labor Council)
Everett City Council member honored by local labor council

Mary Fosse, candidate for District 38, receives the first annual Mike Sells Labor Champion award.

Erika Heer is an EVP, Chief Human Resources Officer at Coastal Community Bank.
Tips for Businesses to Prepare for the Pay Transparency Law, Effective Jan. 1

A recent amendment to Washington law will soon require employers to disclose… Continue reading

Lisa Lefeber, CEO of the Port of Everett, speaks to a crowd while in front of a sign celebrating the opening of the new Norton Terminal on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at the Port of Everett in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Port of Everett christens new Norton cargo terminal

The $40 million terminal took two years to complete and doubles the port’s storage capacity.

Screen printed dish towels available at Madrona Supply Company on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 in Clinton, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Do some good along with your Christmas shopping

Head across the Sound to Whidbey Island for gift-buying with a do-gooder spirit

Shoppers walk in and out of Macy’s at Alderwood Mall were Black Friday deals are being advertised on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Go ahead, hit snooze: Most Black Friday deals are online

Braving the stores on Black Friday is still a thing, but more retailers are closed on Thanksgiving.

FILE - In this photo provided by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, a crane and boats are anchored next to a collapsed "net pen" used by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm Atlantic Salmon near Cypress Island in Washington state on Aug. 28, 2017, after a failure of the nets allowed tens of thousands of the nonnative fish to escape. A Washington state jury on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, awarded the Lummi Indian tribe $595,000 over the 2017 collapse of the net pen where Atlantic salmon were being raised, an event that elicited fears of damage to wild salmon runs and prompted the Legislature to ban the farming of the nonnative fish. (David Bergvall/Washington State Department of Natural Resources via AP, File)
State won’t renew leases for Puget Sound fish farms

Cooke Aquaculture has until Dec. 14 to wrap up steelhead farming and begin deconstructing their equipment.

Kevin Flynn, right, a meat-cutter with the Marysville Albertsons, hands a leaflet to a shopper during an informational campaign on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Flynn was one of about a dozen grocery store workers handing out leaflets to shoppers about the proposed merger between Albertsons and Kroger. (Mike Henneke / The Herald)
Proposed merger of Albertsons and Kroger worries employees

Workers at an Albertsons in Marysville urge shoppers to sign a petition blocking the $25 billion deal.

Kim Taylor, left, and Jeff Stoner co-own Greenbank Cidery, a newly opened taproom on Whidbey Island with eight varieties of cider on tap. (Rachel Rosen / Whidbey News-Times)
Cider tasting room opens on Whidbey Island

The owners of Greenbank Cidery have opened a tasting room in Coupeville. Eight varieties of cider are on tap.