What cell carriers plan to do to aggressively block robocalls after FCC ruling

  • This Aug. 1, 2017, file photo, shows a call log displayed via an AT&T app on a cellphone in Orlando, Fla. New tools are coming to help fight robocall scams, but don’t expect unwanted calls to disappear. AP photo

  • Jen Vargas shows the data of a recent robocall on her home phone in Orlando, Fla. Vargas has an app for her cellphone that helps locate and block fraudulent calls, although she doesn't know what to do on the home phone other than ignore those calls. AP photo

Sun Sentinel
Published: 6/16/2019 6:03:31 PM

Cell phone carriers can now aggressively block unwanted robocalls before they reach consumers, the FCC ruled Thursday.

This is great news for consumers. Hopefully, the ruling will finally give us all some relief over these incessant calls and scams.

Service providers will be able to block these nuisance calls by default, as long as customers are informed and have the opportunity to opt out of the blocking. This is a reversal of rules. Previously, consumers had to opt in to blocking services.

The never-ending stream of robocalls have been the No. 1 consumer complaint to the FCC.

“We’ve expressly authorized phone companies to block certain categories of calls that are highly likely to be illegal, such as calls purporting to originate from unassigned, unallocated, or invalid numbers,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “We’ve taken steps to address the problem of unwanted calls to reassigned numbers by authorizing the creation of a reassigned numbers database. We’ve taken strong enforcement action against illegal robocallers, imposing or proposing almost a quarter-billion dollars in forfeitures against callers for illegal, spoofed calls. And we’ve demanded that industry develop and implement by the end of the year Caller ID authentication _ a critical component in the fight against illegal Caller ID spoofing.”

In May alone, there were 4.7 billion robocalls placed nationwide, according to the YouMail Robocall Index. South Florida area codes consistently receive astronomical numbers of these fraudulent calls each year. Last month, Fort Lauderdale’s 954 area code ranked No. 17 on the list; Orlando’s 407 was 13th and Miami’s 305 was 14th. West Palm Beach came in at No. 58. So far this year, 270.5 million robocalls were placed to Fort Lauderdale.

That’s roughly 137.8 calls per person with a cell phone.

So what will top carriers do now? Most already offer free blocking services. Expect those to get even better at screening unwanted calls.

No. 1 carrier Verizon, which rolled out a free robocall and spam blocking service in March, applauded the FCC decision and says it plans to strengthen its new service.

“Verizon plans to do what it takes to protect our customers from these annoying calls,” the company said in a news release. “As we continue to evolve the service, we intend to take advantage of the new flexibility the FCC is giving us. With the help of these new FCC rules, we’ll be able to provide our customers the benefits of spam alerts and blocking more broadly and conveniently.”

AT&T, the No. 2 carrier, also applauded the action, saying it was committed to working with the FCC and the industry to further curtail illegal and unwanted calls.

The company offers AT&T Mobile Security and AT&T Call Protect, free services that automatically block fraud calls and provide screen alerts for suspected spam calls. It says it has blocked more than 4 billion unwanted calls and uses an analytics system to look for patterns that may indicate an unwanted robocaller. It also encourages customers to report robocalls at Att.com/esupport/report-call-or-text.html.

No. 3 carrier T-Mobile offers free Scam Block protection if customers opt in by dialing #662# from their T-Mo phone, or in the free version the company’s Name ID app. The service provides protection from spoofing, too.

Sprint offers customers Premium Caller ID for $2.99 per month.

On the down side, carriers may also unintentionally screen out fraud alerts from credit card companies, debt collectors (darn!), doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

More help in on the way. Congress reintroduced bipartisan legislation called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Defense Act, known as the TRACED Act. It gives regulators more time to find scammers, increases civil penalties for violators and promotes call authentication and blocking adoption. The bill passed the Senate in May and is now in the House.

Another important step to combat robocalls is a protocall known as STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs (SHAKEN).

The FCC has given cell phone companies a mandate to develop and employ this technology by year’s end. The system will give each phone number a digital certificate of authenticity to verify that calls made from a phone number are in fact coming from that number. Fraudsters make calls and hide their identities using a practice known as “spoofing.”

The technology will only work effectively if all carriers, not just the big four, work together to identify fake numbers.

Verizon’s Call Filter already deploys this technology. AT&T and Comcast will begin offering authentication on calls between networks to customers later this year, after the company performed a successful test in March.

T-Mobile launched Caller Verified technology in January on Samsung Galaxy Note 9 smartphones with a “Caller Verified” display on incoming calls. It says it plans to add more smartphones later this year.

So far, Sprint has not announced any anti-spoofing plans. Pai slammed the carrier in a letter in November threatening regulation if it and other companies failed to act. In January, providers sent updates on STIR/SHAKEN plans. Sprint only pointed to its paid service.

Sprint’s foot-dragging may not matter. T-Mobile is hoping to acquire the carrier for $26 million. Pai gave the merger his blessing in May, but the deal still needs Justice Department approval while several state attorneys general probe the deal.

Until these measures are in place, consumers should continue to report robocalls and spoofing scams to the FCC at Consumercomplaints.fcc.gov. Keep the pressure on. It’s working.

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