Capitol Alert

‘Robocalls are a scourge.’ Phone companies pledge to combat them in deal with states

Consumer tips to avoid falling victim to robocall scams

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai provides some tips to help consumers avoid falling victim to illegal robocalls and maliciously spoofed calls.
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai provides some tips to help consumers avoid falling victim to illegal robocalls and maliciously spoofed calls.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and all 50 fellow attorneys general from across the country and Washington, D.C. announced a deal with the nation’s largest phone companies to rein in robocalls on Thursday.

“Today’s commitment by our industry partners is a step in the right direction to provide every landline and wireless customer with access to free and effective call-blocking tools,” Becerra said in a statement.

As part of the nonbinding deal, twelve phone companies, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Charter and Comcast, will implement initiatives to prevent robocalls, help customers block them and encourage more enforcement against phone scams.

The average American has received more than 100 robocalls already this year: annoying and unwanted calls, scammers looking to exploit vulnerable populations, and all manner of alerts — some important and others simply fake.

“Robocalls initiated from fake numbers are more than just a nuisance – they’re illegal,” said Becerra. “Today’s announcement is a useful step toward eliminating these types of calls, which far too often lead to identify theft and financial loss.”

North Carolina AG Josh Stein led the group along with attorneys general in New Hampshire and Indiana. New Hampshire AG Gordon MacDonald and Arkansas AG Leslie Rutledge announced the deal Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C.

All three attorneys general said robocalls are the top issue they hear about from residents, including ones who tell stories of being scammed out of their life savings. Stein said his office put a petition about the issue on its website and tens of thousands of people signed it.

“it is visceral,” he told McClatchy in an interview.

To prevent illegal robocalls, the phone companies will implement call-blocking technology at no cost to customers, allow customers to access free, easy-to-use call blocking and labeling tools, implement technology to authenticate calls are coming from a valid source and monitor networks for robocall traffic.

To help with enforcement, the companies agreed to investigate and take action against suspicious callers and trace the origins of illegal robocalls.

“The principles offer a comprehensive set of best practices that recognizes that no single action or technology is sufficient to curb the scourge of illegal and unwanted robocalls,” said Henning Schulzrinne, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Columbia University, said in a statement.

Patrick Halley, who works for USTelecom which represents telecommunications companies, said the providers see a benefit in working with the government to weed about these calls, saying provider networks are being abused and customers are not picking up legitimate calls.

“We do this because our customers demand it,” Halley said at the event in D.C. “If we reduce the ability of criminals, it increases the confidence of consumers. People aren’t answering calls anymore. That’s not good for us, that’s not good for consumers.”

A nationwide “Do Not Call” registry was implemented in 2004, helping consumers block telemarketing from legitimate companies and corporations. But those spamming phones today are “complete criminals who do not care about following the law,” said Stein.

He said he has been working on this agreement since 2017.

It’s not just state attorneys generals that are hearing about robocalls. Both chambers of Congress passed legislation to deal with the issue in near unanimous votes earlier this summer.

The Senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act 97-1 in May to stop robocalls, while the House passed the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act 429-3 in July, McClatchy reported earlier this month.

The legislation includes some of the same principles outlined in the agreement, notably greater authentication efforts.

Some lawmakers want to go even further, upping the pressure on telephone and Internet providers.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced legislation that would give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) more power to crack down on phone carriers “who knowingly ignore billions of illegal and intrusive robocalls on their service lines.”

“We must do more than go after the people making the robocalls, we need to stop the phone services that make this illegal behavior possible,” Feinstein explained in a release. “Our bill will give the FTC the tools it needs to do exactly that.”

Becerra’s office encouraged the federal government to take action in his statement on Thursday. The attorney general “continues to urge the FCC to take actions consistent with today’s agreement between state attorneys general and telecommunications carriers.”

Some legitimate businesses have expressed concern, however, that the steps Congress is considering could block necessary communications with their customers. In an April 29 letter to a House subcommittee considering the legislation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of other trade associations argued that some types of robocalls or automated text messages should be exempt.

“Fraud alerts, data breach notifications, reminders to renew prescriptions or schedule a visit to the doctor, notifications of power outages, and automobile recall notices are consumer-benefitting calls that must be placed immediately to be of value to the recipient. It is critical that these calls and text messages be completed,” they wrote in the letter signed by associations representing bankers, restaurants, retailers and health-care administrators.

Stein and others said the technology exists to separate the legitimate calls and reminders from those that are illegal and fake.

The other phone companies participating in the agreement are Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Consolidated, Frontier, US Cellular and Winstream. Halley said other providers are encouraged to join the agreement, which is non-binding.

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
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