New measures by U.S. regulators could help thwart some of the billions of robocalls received in the U.S.
The rising volume of calls in the last few years has created pressure on Congress, regulators and phone companies to act.
The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that it will vote in June on whether to allow to carriers block spam calls by default, which should mean that more spam calls are blocked.
Right now, customers have to take the extra step of requesting tools from their carriers or downloading apps from other companies to help them weed out most unwanted calls.
The agency won't require carriers to provide such services, though, or mandate that the tools offered are free. Today, some of these apps cost extra money, others are free.
"We certainly are encouraging companies to offer this for free," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. He said he anticipates that they won't charge extra because it would cost less than the headache of dealing with robocalls and customer complaints about them today. He raised the threat of regulatory action if the carriers don't take steps, saying that the agency will "stand ready to take action if the companies do not take the steps necessary to protect consumers."
The agency also said Wednesday it's making clear that carriers can let customers come up with lists of numbers that they will permit to call them. That means a customer could tell his or her phone company, I only want people whose numbers I have in my phone to be allowed to get through.
"There is no doubt that this can only help, that it's a good thing. My questions go to how much it helps," said Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center and an expert on robocalls.
She noted that consumers get plenty of calls that are unwanted but are not scams, like those from telemarketers of legitimate companies and debt collectors. It's unclear how well calls like that would be kept away from consumers under the new proposal, she said.
There are also bills in Congress addressing the robocall problem. A bipartisan bill in the Senate, the TRACED Act, would force carriers to adopt a system in 18 months that verifies that the number that pops up on your caller ID is real. A big problem with robocalls is that many are "spoofed," or faked to look like they're coming from a number that matches your area code and the next three digits of your number, so you think it's a neighbor and are more likely to pick up. The industry is working on deploying this long-in-the-works system, called "STIR/SHAKEN," but it's been a slow process. Pai has threatened regulatory action if it's not done this year.
The Senate bill would also give the FCC more power to fine the people responsible for spam calls and puts together federal agencies and state officials to figure out ways to pursue criminal cases against robocall scammers, not just civil ones.