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U.S. Poised To Let Phone Companies Block Robocalls

FCC wants to give telecom carriers more leeway to manage unwanted calls. U.S. Poised To Let Phone Companies Block Robocalls

U.S. Poised To Let Phone Companies Block Robocalls

Responding to widespread consumer complaints, the Federal Communications Commission says it will take steps to give phone companies permission to block unwanted robocalls.

Americans get billions of unwanted phone calls annually, making it the No. 1 complaint received by the FCC. But carriers have long been wary of blocking robocalls for fear of breaking the regulator’s call-completion rules that require phone companies to make sure calls reach their intended recipient.

“The American people are fed up with illegal robocalls,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai told reporters Wednesday, saying the agency aims to make it easier for phone companies to block them.

Illegal robocalls, often containing recordings of scammers posing as a government agency, computer support technician or insurance salesperson, have exploded in recent years thanks to low-cost technology that allows for auto-dialing and obscuring a call’s origin. Stopping them has proved difficult in part because bad actors are hard to identify and punish and in part because some robocalls are legal, others are illegal and still others are simply unwanted.

Mr. Pai said the commission has scheduled a June 6 vote on a measure that would assure phone companies that block unwanted calls won’t run afoul of federal rules. The agency said it would enable phone companies to analyze their network traffic to spot and block robocalls. They could let customers create so-called white lists of approved callers and block all other incoming calls.

The regulator is also proposing a measure that would protect phone companies using a new authentication protocol for separating legitimate calls from illegitimate ones. Mr. Pai has encouraged carriers to adopt that call-verification framework, referred to as SHAKEN and STIR, by the end of this year. He told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday the agency would make the framework mandatory if carriers don’t adopt it.

The moves—particularly the portion allowing consumers to limit the calls they receive to just people or businesses in their contact lists—are likely to meet resistance from companies whose calls are legal, but often unwanted and considered annoying by recipients, such as debt collectors.

“Unwanted calls are not necessarily unlawful calls,” said Daniel Blynn, a partner at Venable LLP in Washington, D.C. He added that the proposals come with some unanswered questions such as how a legitimate company that is making legal calls and is placed on a spam caller list can remove itself from it.

ACA International, a trade group representing collection agencies, said Wednesday it supports efforts to combat illegal calls but “consumer harm results when legitimate business calls are blocked or mislabeled and people do not receive critical, sometimes exigent information they need.”

CTIA, a trade group representing mobile-phone manufacturers and wireless carriers, said “the wireless industry is committed to combating illegal and unwanted robocalls” and it will continue to work “with the FCC and other stakeholders to protect American consumers.”

For phone companies, “the traditional role was to just pass calls through. Now you’re potentially putting them on the hook for actually policing calls that go through,” said Daniel Delnero, a senior attorney at Squire Patton Boggs in Atlanta that advises companies on consumer class-action suits related to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

It remains uncertain whether the proposals will stem the flood of robocalls, and how much, if anything, consumers will pay for call-blocking services. Mr. Pai said the proposals “would likely greatly increase adoption” of call-blocking technology.

He encouraged phone companies to provide the service free, noting that fewer robocalls would also mean fewer complaints from customers and less spam traffic on their networks. But he stopped short of proposing to mandate that the services be free. He also said the proposals are designed to ensure emergency calls wouldn’t be blocked.


Updated: 5-29-2019

Businesses Balk At FCC Bid To Block Robocalls

Debt collectors, credit unions among those lobbying the FCC to reconsider its call-blocking proposal.

Some businesses are pushing back against a regulatory proposal that would allow phone companies to block unwanted robocalls.

Representatives for trade bodies that lobby on behalf of debt collectors, banks, health-care providers and other businesses met with Federal Communications Commission officials last week, urging them to delay a planned June 6 vote on the matter and instead seek public comment, people who attended the meeting said.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai this month said the commission would vote on a measure allowing phone companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to analyze network traffic to spot and block unwanted robocalls without running afoul of federal rules.

The proposal is part of an effort to cut down on unwanted and illegal robocalls, but some businesses fear it could result in carriers also blocking automated calls from legitimate firms. Banks, collection agencies and merchants say automated calls are crucial, even though some consumers find them annoying.

Representatives for ACA International, a trade body for debt and collections companies, the American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management, the Credit Union National Association and the American Bankers Association were among those who met with FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and a member of his staff, as well as a member of Commissioner Brendan Carr’s staff.

“It’s important that the commission take a hard look at some of the proposals to make sure that they are appropriately targeted to address the problem, illegal automated calls,” said Mark Brennan, a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP, who is counsel to the health-care group and attended the meetings. The group supports efforts to stop illegal robocalls, he said.

The current call-blocking proposal could mean financial-services companies such as mortgage or educational lenders are unable to reach customers for informational purposes, which could keep them from complying with separate consumer-protection rules requiring such companies to contact customers under certain circumstances, some of the groups said.

The FCC proposal would allow consumers who feel call blocking is preventing them from receiving wanted calls to opt out of the service, a spokesman for Mr. Pai said. “The American people are sick and tired of receiving a flood of unwanted robocalls, and allowing carriers to use call-blocking services by default will help provide consumers with much-needed relief,” the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Mr. Carr declined to comment and a representative for Mr. O’Rielly didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Leah Dempsey, a senior counsel at ACA International, who attended the meetings, said the FCC should seek public comment. “It shouldn’t be something done in the cover of night,” she said.

Representatives for the trade groups also told regulators they are concerned that customers and callers won’t know when a call has been blocked.

Ryan Donovan, chief advocacy officer for the credit union group, said the proposal could lead to calls about financial or consumer health being blocked with neither party knowing. “What is an unwanted call, and how does the caller know that the call is unwanted? It’s very ambiguous,” he said.

Separately, Noble Systems Corp., an Atlanta-based call-center technology company, said the proposal created a public-safety issue because it could result in some urgent communications from schools or health-care providers being blocked if a phone company doesn’t classify them as emergency communications. Even if carriers made a so-called whitelist of emergency numbers, scammers would be able to discover and spoof them to trick consumers into answering their calls, the company said.

Consumer-advocacy groups, meanwhile, have said they worry that call blocking by the carriers could lead to additional monthly charges and billing confusion for customers.

Congress is separately pressing the FCC to crack down on robocalls. The Senate approved a bill 97-1 last week that toughens penalties for illegal calls and requires phone companies to implement a call-verification standard. The bill hasn’t yet cleared the House but has bipartisan support there. U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone

To Stop Robocalls, Parties Need to Understand Who Is a RoboCaller

FCC still needs to define an ‘auto-dialer’ and clarify how consumers can opt out of phone calls from legitimate businesses.

America’s telecommunications regulator passed rules last week that will let phone companies automatically block more robocalls. It hasn’t yet said what, exactly, constitutes such a call.

There is little debate that robocalls meant to deceive or scam consumers are bad, and that calls from schools or doctors’ offices are typically benign. It is the large and thorny middle ground—calls to consumers by legitimate businesses—where the Federal Communications Commission hasn’t set clear rules.

A vast field of class-action and other consumer lawsuits hangs in the balance. Companies can pay $500 to $1,500 per violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a federal law enacted in 1991 that governs telemarketing. Violations includecalling a consumer without his or her permission and can stem from the dialing equipment used.

The need for clarity is rooted in a federal appeals court ruling more than a year ago that said the FCC under the Obama administration overreached in its effort to stop telemarketing abuses.The court said the regulator too broadly defined what constitutes telemarketing abuses, particularly in its description of a so-called auto-dialer, the equipment used to make robocalls.

The FCC continues to seek public comment on what constitutes such a dialer. Congress could also pass legislation that clarifies the definition.

Courts nationwide have made disparate rulings and the number of TCPA-related cases filed has increased. A pro-business group, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, counted more than 3,100 TCPA-related lawsuits filed in the 17 months after the Obama-era FCC order, compared with about 2,100 such cases during the same amount of time before it.

Consumer advocates say these lawsuits provide a needed avenue for redress because many business calls pester and infuriate recipients.

In some cases, individuals cash in on the penalties businesses pay and seek ways to attract calls that could help them score settlements. A Pennsylvania man, for example, owns multiple phones and files multiple lawsuits against companies for telemarketing calls each year, court records show. A woman carried around a shoebox filled with prepaid cellphones hoping to catch erroneous telemarketing calls, according to court filings.

In one high-profile TCPA case that related to violations of the National Do Not Call Registry, attorneys won a $61 million jury verdict against Dish Network Corp. over marketing phone calls. An appeals court rejected Dish’s appeal last month.

A spokesman for Dish said the satellite-TV provider was disappointed with the court’s opinion. “It is undisputed that Dish contractually required its independent retailers to comply with telemarketing laws,” the company said.

Attorneys for large businesses say companies often settle because it is faster and cheaper than trial. Most companies try to comply with federal rules, those lawyers say.

“I can’t believe clients are getting hit with $500 to $1,500 per call, and we still don’t know what it is we are supposed to be using” to make automated calls, said Becca Wahlquist, a partner at Snell & Wilmer LLP, who wasn’t involved in the Dish case.

Attorneys for consumers say those who bring lawsuits are trying to stop disruptive calls that bother Americans. Matthew McCue, an attorney in Natick, Mass., who works on such cases, says he has two clients who have collectively won $100 million for consumers through cases involving TCPA violations.

“I learned the law, I learned what was right, and I just took it and ran with it,” said Diana Mey, 60, who lives in Wheeling, W.Va., and is one of those two customers.

Mr. McCue said the illegal telemarketing problem would be worse if not for class-action enforcement of the TCPA.

The FCC last week gave phone companies permission to analyze their network traffic and block unwanted and illegal robocalls rather than requiring customers to ask.

Verizon Communications Inc., for example, said it would expand a free junk-call-filtering service to its entire subscriber base in the coming months.

The burden of identifying unwanted and illegal robocalls falls on carriers, but the FCC didn’t address what constitutes an automated call. The regulator also is expected to clarify what constitutes opting out of receiving calls.

Michael McTigue, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP who advises companies facing class-action lawsuits related to the TCPA, said he thinks the auto-dialer definition should be limited to technology that randomly or sequentially generates and calls numbers without human intervention.

That is a view shared by other business advocacy groups. Those groups say the rule shouldn’t ban calls made using databases of numbers compiled for customer calls or dialing systems that time phone calls to match when a human agent will be available.

Consumer advocates and attorneys say that definition is too narrow.

“If those are passed then there’ll be a flood of calls,” said Keith Keogh, a Chicago-based attorney who works on consumer class-action suits including cases focused on TCPA violations. U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone, U.S. Poised To Let Phone

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