Can the FCC Stop 2.4 Billion Monthly Robocalls?

Print Email

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would allow telecom carriers like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) to block what are commonly known as robocalls. These calls are generated from spoofed caller ID numbers and one of their most “pernicious” uses, according to the FCC, are calls purporting to be coming from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Under the proposed rule, carriers would be allowed to block such calls without violating an FCC rule that requires the carriers to complete all calls. The phony IRS calls threaten people who don’t send money with a visit from law enforcement officials.

In a test of the new rule fielded in the third quarter of last year, carriers were able to reduce IRS-scam robocalls by about 90%. An added benefit, at least from the FCC’s vantage point, is that blocking spoofed calls could reduce the 200,000 consumer complaints the agency receives every year related to unwanted phone calls.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai explained spoofing and the proposed rule in a blog post earlier this month:

Through spoofing, someone calling from one number (555–1212) changes caller ID information to make it appear as though he’s calling from a different number (867–5309). Scammers and spammers use spoofing to disguise their identity, to trick consumers into answering unwanted calls, and to hide from authorities. And under the FCC’s current rules, which generally prevent call-blocking, there is not much that carriers can do to stop this. …

[Under the proposed rule, carriers] could block calls that purport to be from unassigned or invalid phone numbers (there’s a database that keeps track of all phone numbers, and many of them aren’t assigned to a voice service provider or aren’t otherwise in use). There is no reason why any legitimate caller should be spoofing an unassigned or invalid phone number. It’s just a way for scammers to evade the law.

The FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking also included additional rules to allow carriers to block spoofed robocalls and solicited public input on ways to address spoofed calls from international sources.

What the FCC has given on one hand, however, may soon be taken away by the Congress. As Thursday’s FCC meeting was in session, the U.S. Senate voted (50 to 48) to remove restrictions on carriers and internet service providers (ISPs) that currently prevent them from collecting personal information on consumers’ internet usage without asking first for permission and selling the information to whoever is willing to pay for it.

The change is now headed for the House and then on to the president for signature. No challenge is expected to final approval.