FCC Decision to Let Carriers Block Robocalls by Default Raises Questions

By Rebecca Heilweil

Thursday's decision by the Federal Communications Commission to encourage mobile carriers to auto-block robocalls might help mitigate the barrage of telemarketers and scammers calling consumers, but advocates warn that consumers should be critical as to how ー and which ー calls are blocked, as well as to whether they'll ultimately pay the cost of the new service.

Many consumers were previously able to opt into these services ー though not necessarily aware that they could. Now phone companies can make the weeding out of suspected robocallers a default setting and instead let the customer opt out of the service.

"The FCC is not requiring them to use blocking by default. They're saying you can without violating the law," Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law and Policy, told Cheddar. "If you do block calls by default, you have to tell the customer, and give the customer the option to opt out."

In the United States, there were nearly 4.7 billion robocalls dialed in May, according to YouMail, a free call-blocking app. That brings the total number of robocalls dialed in the country for this year to nearly 25 billion overall.

Carriers had previously worried that automatically blocking calls by default would violate their legal duty to complete almost all calls, an obligation that stems from the Communications Act.

"The robocall problem is partially there because it's so easy to make robocalls. You can just simply go to a website, upload a list of phone numbers, hit a button, use a prepaid debit card, and annoy a whole city for a few hundred dollars," YouMail CEO Alex Quilici told Cheddar. "The challenge is detecting good robocalls from bad robocalls. Nobody wants the IRS scam to call, but a lot of people do actually want CVS to remind them that their prescription is there."

One broader challenge is that it's not easy to discern whether the number is actually a bad robocaller. "The FCC makes a distinction between the scammers that are trying to cheat you out of money and so-called 'legitimate businesses,'" explained Sohn. "There really is no distinction. You either follow the rules, get consent from the customer, or you don't, and you're illegal."

"Clearly, the scam calls we want to be stopped. But how do you tell the difference between those scam calls and those legal debt collection calls? And then there are the telemarketing calls, which are legal, but only with prior written consent," Margot Saunders, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, told Cheddar. "I think we can anticipate some really strong opposition, depending on the way the call blocking technologies are implemented."

Saunders adds that the decision doesn't have bearing on which robocallers the FCC requires to gain consent from the customer.

Regarding the decision, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a statement, "if there is one thing in our country right now that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans, it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls."

But some are worried that carriers will just boost the price of phone service to comply. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in her decision that "robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop. 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."

"If you block these calls, customers will want to use their phones more, and that's very good for the phone companies," added Sohn, who advocates that the call-blocking service should be free to consumers.

But the implementation of default call blocking ー a voluntary option for carriers ー could take time. "We think the carriers are going to move pretty slowly and cautiously here," said Quicili.

The decision could bring more business to services like Transaction Network Services, which uses data, such as calling patterns from a particular phone or a call's routing through a network, to develop reputational scores that can be used to make informed decisions about what numbers to block. TNS also provides call-blocking to Verizon and Sprint.

"Absolutely, we're seeing an increase in those smaller carriers trying to figure out, 'well, what do I do?," Jim Tyrrell, a senior director at Transaction Network Services, said.

The FCC's decision also raises questions over how the agency will address call-spoofing, a practice in which one's caller ID is falsified, like faking a local area code to trick a consumer into thinking a neighbor is calling.

The agency has yet to mandate that carriers implement a system to authenticate caller IDs.

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