Robocall 'scourge': How tech giants and the government plan to end it

A 25-year-old law has failed to put an end to pesky automated sales calls and scams, but now Google, Apple, and others are teaming up with the Federal Communications Commission in an attempt to curb the scourge.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington, D.C. on February 26, 2015.

The United States government and a long list of tech giants are joining forces in a fresh attempt to crack down on so-called robocalls.

Laws attempting to mitigate repetitive, annoying, automated telemarketing phone calls, have been in place since 1991, but as what regulators call a “scourge” continues, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is teaming up with the likes of AT&T Inc, Google parent Alphabet Inc, Apple Inc, Verizon Communications Inc, and Comcast Corp, in the hope they can make it stop.

The so-called Robocall Strike Force is due to report to the commission on Oct. 19 with "concrete plans to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions," Randall Stephenson, AT&T's chief executive officer and chairman of the group, said at the first meeting of the FCC on Friday.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 was meant to prevent the extremes of robocalls and telemarketing abuses, but since then the problem has persisted. The new Strike Force hopes to enshrine new caller ID verification standards that would help block calls from spoofed phone numbers that mask the true origin of the call. It will also consider a "Do Not Originate" list that would prevent spoofers from using specific phone numbers from governments, banks, or others. FFC Chairman Tom Wheeler says robocalls are the number-one reason for consumer complaints.

A few consumers have given up on asking for companies robocalling them to stop, and opted to take them to court. That’s what Araceli King of Irving, Texas, did last year when she sued Time Warner Cable, winning $229,500 after receiving 153 unwanted calls from the company, the Monitor's Husna Haq reported.

At the time, Ms. King's lawyer, Sergei Lemberg, said the decision sent a message to consumers to "stop taking it on the chin" when robocalls cross the line from an occasional nuisance to persistent harassment.

"Millions of US consumers get robocalls. Only a few of them take it a step forward and get a lawyer," Mr. Lemberg told NBC News.

The new “Strike Force” recognizes, in a way, that a majority of consumers do not have the time, money, or desire to go the legal route against telemarketers or scam artists.

Mr. Wheeler said the widespread nuisance of robocalls continued "due in large part to industry inaction."

"The bad guys are beating the good guys with technology," he said.

At the same time, Stephenson acknowledged the complexity of ending unwanted robocalls.

"This is going to require more than individual company initiatives and one-off blocking apps," Stephenson said. "Robocallers are a formidable adversary, notoriously hard to stop."

In the meantime, the Monitor offered tips for determining if calls might be grounds for legal action:

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act offers some basic guidelines, advises Ada Kulesza of and Kevin Hunt of the Hartford Courant:

• Solicitors can't call your house before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

• They must maintain and honor a company-specific "do-not-call" list of consumers who asked not to be called again

• They must honor the National Do Not Call Registry

• They can't use automated dialing or a prerecorded voice to call you without your permission

• They can't call your cellphone without your permission

If any of these rules or others are broken, consumers could sue a company for between $500 and $1500 per call, Ms. Haq wrote.

However, political and non-profit groups are allowed to robocall your home number.

Other companies on the strike force include: Blackberry Ltd, British Telecommunications Plc, Charter Communications Inc, Frontier Communications, LG Electronics Inc, Microsoft Corp, Nokia Corp, Qualcomm Inc, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, Sirius XM Holdings Inc, T-Mobile US Inc, and U.S. Cellular Corp.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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