State attorneys general, telecom companies band together on sweeping anti-robocall effort

State attorneys general, telecom companies band together on sweeping anti-robocall effort
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A group of attorneys general from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., joined executives from 12 phone companies Thursday to announce a sweeping effort to combat the scourge of illegal robocalls dialing up millions of U.S. customers every year.

The set of anti-robocall principles and practices, unveiled at a press conference in D.C., would require the phone companies to take steps towards preventing the spam calls and work in tandem with law enforcement to take down illegal robocalling operations.

"Illegal robocalls harass and harm people all across this country," North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) said during the conference. "By adopting these technological solutions and improving their cooperation with law enforcement, these phone companies are going to better serve their customers."

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Under the deal between industry groups and the government, which is over a year and a half in the making, the companies — including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and Comcast — have agreed to implement call-blocking technology at no extra cost to customers, and offer their customers a range of "free, easy-to-use call blocking and labeling tools." 

The state-level efforts come as the federal government is also working overtime to address the issue of robocalls, which have been increasing in volume for years. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this summer voted to allow phone carriers to block suspicious calls by default. 

Bills moving through the House and Senate would increase penalties for illegal robocallers and promote call authentication technology.

"We would absolutely welcome congressional action in this regard," Stein said, responding to a question about the legislation. "Just as we welcome the positive steps the FCC has taken in recent months." 

"But, as states who are responsible for our constituents, we don’t want to wait on Washington [to] do anything," he continued. "So what we have done is develop these principles over many months in collaboration with the telephone providers who have to implement them." 

Many of the companies involved in the agreement had already agreed to implement the call authentication technology, referred to as "STIR/SHAKEN."

The phone companies agreed to a set of eight principles to cut down on the billions of illegal robocalls in the U.S. annually. The principles include a commitment to cooperate with law enforcement in investigations of illegal robocallers — who often operate overseas — as well as to confirm the identity of any new customers by collecting information on their business location, federal tax ID and more.

Patrick Halley, the senior vice president of regulatory affairs with U.S. Telecom, emphasized that phone companies "understand our customers are fed up with receiving illegal robocalls." 

He said it's the industry's hope that the deal "increases confidence of consumers and businesses that rely on our networks." 

The effort comes after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), alongside a coalition of state attorneys general and local officials, announced in June that they had taken 94 enforcement actions against illegal robocalling operations responsible for a total of over 1 billion robocalls.

Illegal robocalls have both frustrated millions of consumers and left certain populations, particularly senior citizens, vulnerable to scams and identity theft.

"As we combat robocalls, it is going to take all of us working together," Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said. "As the tech advances, quite frankly, government can’t do it alone. We must have our friends in the private industry."

The principles do not come with a timeline or specific enforcement mechanisms.

Stein said it took "extensive" negotiations to come to a private-public agreement, noting it was not all received "enthusiastically."

"In terms of whether the companies don’t live up to it, we have ways other than going to court to encourage their ongoing cooperation," he said. 

Updated: 3:13 p.m.