If you have a cellphone, you probably love it and hate it. The main reason you hate it is very likely to be robocalls.
If Americans can agree on anything these days, it’s that they’re fed up with robocalls. The scam calls.The calls from foreign countries at 2 a.m. The deceptive caller ID “spoofing,” which happens when a caller falsifies caller ID information to make it look as if they’re calling from your area code.
Unwanted robocalls are far and away the top consumer complaint we get each year at the Federal Communications Commission. They’re more than 60% of the complaints we receive. And when consumers complain to us, they don’t distinguish between illegal calls, scam calls, telemarketing calls and spoofed calls. They simply lump them together under one category: unwanted.
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A lot of consumers are understandably frustrated by this. One woman recently told me she felt like robocallers had absconded with her expensive smartphone by bombarding it so frequently with unwanted calls. Another man wrote me asking that the FCC respect the wishes of most Americans by working to stop unwanted robocalls.
Stopping the deluge of unwanted calls is the FCC’s top consumer protection priority. That’s why I recently proposed to allow such calls to be blocked by default, before they even get to your phone. Call-blocking services are available now, but only if a consumer proactively asks for it or downloads an app.
But under my proposal, which the FCC will vote on Thursday, phone companies won’t have to wait before offering these protections. This should greatly increase consumer adoption of these services and help stem the flow of scam robocalls. And, of course, consumers can opt out if they don’t want these calls blocked.
We expect phone companies will move quickly to use this tool and help consumers block unwanted robocalls. Among other things, default call-blocking will reduce the costs of handling the robocalls that flood their networks and save them grief by limiting customer complaints.
Not everyone agrees
I’ll concede that not everyone is happy about my proposal. For example, robocallers, including debt collectors, have asked us to delay our vote. But the Americans whom I hear from want relief from the flood of unwanted robocalls now. They don’t want us to wait.
Technology has made it far too cheap and easy to make massive amounts of robocalls. For example, we recently saw “one ring” scam calls flowing into America from countries like Mauritania and Sierra Leone. Scammers unleashed calls in the middle of the night, letting the phone ring just once. They hoped to arouse enough curiosity — or sleep-deprived fury — from consumers to prompt a callback that they could then bill like a 900-number call. Under my proposal, these types of calls could be stopped before they even get to consumers.
In addition to making it easier to block unwanted robocalls, we’re working on making “call authentication” — essentially, a digital fingerprint for every phone call — the norm. Specifically, I demanded last year that major phone companies put in place the tools necessary to know where a call came from and whether it’s a likely scam. If they didn’t do this by the end of 2019, I threatened FCC intervention to make sure they did.
Recent progress suggests that the private sector is on track to meet the end-of-year deadline I’ve set. But in case that changes, I’ve included in the document we’ll vote on Thursday the necessary language that would enable us to move quickly to adopt regulations requiring companies to implement call authentication if necessary.
I hate robocalls as much as you do. I get them myself on my mobile phone, I hear about them from my family and friends, and I know that consumers want to reclaim their sanity. I’m optimistic that the strong FCC proposal to allow these calls to be blocked by default will help get us there — and hasten the end to what one former senator rightly called the “scourge of civilization.”
Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Follow him on Twitter: @ajitpaifcc.