FCC votes to allow phone carriers to block robocalls by default

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to allow phone carriers to block suspicious calls by default in an effort to bolster industry efforts to filter out robocalls and scammers.

The proposal would also let phone companies offer their customers the option of blocking any numbers that are not pre-approved, a service that could help protect elderly consumers from scams and telemarketers.

“We expect phone companies will move quickly to use this tool and help consumers block unwanted robocalls,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in USA Today. “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.”

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Critics of the FCC’s proposal say the agency should have gone further to ensure that wireless companies won’t charge consumers extra to protect them from robocalls, as some carriers currently do.

“I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop,” Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against parts of the proposal, said at an FCC hearing on Thursday. “I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up.”

All five FCC commissioners voted to approve the order, though Rosenworcel and Republican Michael O'Rielly dissented against parts of the proposal.

The rate of robocalls has steadily increased. According to YouMail's robocall index, 4.7 billion calls were placed in the U.S. in May, up from about 4.1 billion in June 2018.

The issue has gotten increased attention from lawmakers, many of whom are hearing from angry constituents. Last month, the Senate passed a bill 97-1 that would give regulators the ability to fine scammers up to $10,000 per illegal call.

The FCC said that under the proposed rules companies like Verizon and AT&T would be able to use analytics to determine which calls are “spoofed” — meaning that they use a fake number — and filter them out before they reach the recipient.

A coalition of trade groups representing businesses like pharmacies, debt collectors and bankers says the proposal risks hurting their ability to reach consumers with legitimate calls.

"Public safety alerts, fraud alerts, data security breach notifications, product recall notices, healthcare and prescription reminders, and power outage updates all could be inadvertently blocked under the draft Declaratory Order, among other time-sensitive calls," the groups said in a filing with the FCC last week.

The commission also voted to move forward with a proposal to provide a legal safe harbor for carriers that block spoofed numbers. That proposal will be open to public comment before advancing.

— This report was updated at 11:15 a.m.