Phone Industry Robocall Strike Force Announces Plans for Tackling Unwanted Calls

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Consumers Union Says Plan Is An Important Initial Victory For Consumers Who Have Been Pressuring Phone Companies To Take Action  

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A newly-formed Robocall Strike Force, made up of phone companies and other telecommunications providers, announced plans today for how they will work together to adopt technical standards and achieve other technological improvements that will help make call-blocking tools more effective.  Today’s announcement follows a nearly two year-long campaign by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, to mobilize consumers to put pressure on the major phone companies to protect their customers from unwanted calls.

At the meeting, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler stated that “consumers have a right to be fed up” with robocalls and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai called robocalls a “scourge on civilization.”

“Consumers are sick and tired of robocalls and have made it clear that they expect the phone companies to take action,” said Tim Marvin, manager of Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign.  “The plan unveiled by the Strike Force today represents an important initial victory for consumers and a sign that the phone companies are taking more serious steps to protect their customers from unwanted calls.  We’ll be monitoring the work of the Strike Force closely in the next 60 days to make sure they deliver on these promises.”

Consumers Union launched its End Robocalls campaign last year calling on the phone companies to step up their efforts to block robocalls.  Over 600,000 people have signed Consumers Union’s petition urging AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon to offer their customers free robocall-blocking tools.

The plan announced today includes a deadline of October 19 for a Strike Force report and plan to reach agreement on solutions for the technology and practices that can block robocalls and identify bad actors, as well as recommendations for government action.  

Specifically, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson promised that the companies would conform Caller ID standards when those standards are available for VOIP technologies and that the telecommunications community would work together to compile a “do not originate” list and facilitate efforts across carriers to adopt blocking technologies.

Notably absent from Stephenson’s public commitment were measures specifically called for by Chairman Wheeler, including solutions for traditional landlines and the need for fast publication of applicable standards.  

Said Marvin, “It’s critical that the Strike Force’s solutions address the needs of the most vulnerable consumers who still use landlines, and that the move forward towards standards be on the same timeline as the report.  Adoption of standards should not and cannot be a waiting game.”

In late July, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent letters to the major phone companies and gateway providers and urged them to take quick action to address the robocall epidemic.  Wheeler called on the companies to offer their customers free robocall-blocking tools and asked them to submit plans within 30 days outlining the steps they planned to take.  Around the same time, Wheeler asked Stephenson to lead a Robocall Strike Force to coordinate industry efforts.

The phone companies have argued that a joint industry effort is needed to combat Caller ID fraud or call “spoofing,” when scammers transmit incorrect Caller ID information to trick consumers into answering their phone.  But Wheeler made clear in his letters that the phone companies’ work on call verification “should not come at the expense of offering robocall solutions now.”

“While no robocall solution will be 100 percent effective, it’s clear that technology already exists to help reduce unwanted robocalls,” said Marvin.  “We agree with Chairman Wheeler that this joint industry effort shouldn’t delay the phone companies from offering free call-blocking tools now.  As the Strike Force works to improve industry efforts to combat unwanted calls, the phone companies should start offering their customers the best call-blocking protection currently available.”    

Robocalls are more than just a nuisance.  They can cost consumers real money when they are used to commit fraud.  Too often, that’s the case.  Phone scams result in an estimated $350 million in financial losses for consumers every year.  

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received over 3.5 million complaints from consumers fed up with unwanted calls.  Almost half of these calls occurred after the consumer requested that the caller stop contacting them.  Robocalls have become so rampant that complaints about violations of the Do Not Call registry doubled between 2010 and 2015.

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Consumers Union is the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  Consumers Union works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization.  Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually.  Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications.