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Wed, Sept. 18

Editorial: Phone companies can make robocalls go away; will they?

Arizona phone numbers got an average of 3 million robocalls every day in the first four months of this year, an 81 percent increase over the same period last year despite efforts to stop them. Phone scams and telemarketing are among the most common complaints to the state attorney general’s office. (Chris Pirillo/Creative Commons)

Arizona phone numbers got an average of 3 million robocalls every day in the first four months of this year, an 81 percent increase over the same period last year despite efforts to stop them. Phone scams and telemarketing are among the most common complaints to the state attorney general’s office. (Chris Pirillo/Creative Commons)

We regularly receive robocalls on our phones, and the phone companies have the technology to stop them. The questions are, will they and will we have to pay?

The rise in debt collectors, telemarketers and – most worrisome – fraudsters ringing up consumers’ phones has led the FCC and Congress to push phone companies to do more, the Associated Press reported. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission moved to make call-blocking widespread and help consumers dodge annoying robocalls, which have exploded into a problem that bothers Americans on the level of billions of calls each month.

The action came because the phone companies have been slow to act against such automated calls on their own.

Federal regulators voted to give phone companies the right to block unwanted calls without getting customers’ permission first. One caveat is phone companies don’t actually have to do anything, and they could start charging us if they do — just as they now charge for some caller ID features and other extras.

However, the FCC expects phone companies to offer these tools for free. Unfortunately, it does not require them to do so.

It seems that robocalls have increased as cheap software makes it easy to make mass calls. Scammers apparently don’t care if you’ve added your number to the government’s Do Not Call list, and enforcement is negligible. There are 5 billion robocalls per month in the U.S., according to call-blocker YouMail. That works out to 14 calls per person.

The FCC vote could potentially be a powerful counter against unwanted calls. While call-blocking apps already exist, you have to turn them on or ask for them. Now, along with clarifying that both wireless and landline companies can block unwanted calls without asking customers first, the FCC said that wireless carriers are also allowed to block all callers who aren’t on a customer’s contact list.

Still, the measure might inadvertently lead to the blocking of automated calls. Flight changes, school closures, appointment reminders, even the Yavapai County Code Red safety alerts, could fall victim to the blocking.

The rules will let consumers “opt out” and ask their phone company not to block anything.

So it is a Catch-22; we want the robocalls to stop, yet there may be problems as phone companies embrace the technology they already have. Yes, they already have the means to stop the unwanted calls.

We believe, though problems may crop up and will be worked through, the agency should have required that call-blocking services be made free.

Regardless, however, the phone companies will have an incentive to step up and offer these services for free. “These robocalls that are being placed on their networks are a hassle and a cost for them to handle,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

Take heart, everyone, all is not lost and progress has been promised. For instance, there are other attacks against robocalls in the works, such as trying to get rid of “spoofed” numbers –when a scammer fakes the incoming call number on your phone to look like it is coming from the same area code you have, in an effort to get you to pick up.

The phone industry has been working on a system that will ensure the number that comes up on people’s phones is real.

Again, though, will we have to pay for the service? Questions remain, and Americans want a barrier between them and the scammers.

Do what’s right, phone companies, not what may make you some money in the short term; protecting consumers – your customers – will earn their trust.

Can you hear us now?

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