Consumer

Why aren't phone companies doing more to block robocalls?

July 17, 2013 at 11:53 AM ET

Image: Aaron Foss
Aaron Foss
Long Island software developer Aaron Foss plans to offer a free robocall blocking service later this summer. Foss, who won the FTC'S RoboCall Challenge in April, doesn't understand why U.S. phone companies don't do more to tackle this growing problem.

We get them. We hate them. So why can’t we get rid of those annoying robocalls – many of them outright scams – that pitch everything from extended auto warranties to debt reduction services?

Filtering technology exists to tackle this growing problem – it’s available in Canada – but so far phone companies in the U.S. have failed to deploy it.

So, the calls go out and the complaints pour in. Robocalls make up the largest number of complaints to both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC alone receives 200,000 robocall complaints a month from irate consumers.

“We’re using every tool we have,” said Lois Greisman, associate director of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission. “We tightened the rules about robocalls and aggressively brought cases to shut down robocallers. But, unlike the Lone Ranger, we don’t have a silver bullet to end invasive robocalls.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, held a hearing last week to ask U.S. phone companies why they aren’t doing more to stop the deluge of robocalls. And she chastised them for not using filtering technology similar to what’s already working in Canada and soon to become available in this country.

“We’ve got to up our game to protect people from this,” she said. “The technology is available. It’s very practical and realistic that we put more pressure on the phone carriers to participate in solving this problem.”

Telecom companies told the committee they are concerned about the growth of robocalls and understand customer frustration, but they question whether filtering technology would really work. And they say their hands are tied by regulations that prohibit them from blocking calls.

Kevin Rupy, senior director of law and policy for the United States Telecom Association, testified that phone companies “work in many ways to monitor, mitigate and respond to the problem.” He reminded the senators that carriers are legally required to complete all calls and they may not be allowed to use call-screening software.

Michael Altschul, senior vice president of CTIA – The Wireless Association, testified that wireless carriers “have concerns about overreaching and blocking legitimate calls.”

The Canadian solution
Canadians who get their phone service from Primus Telecommunications, can take advantage of a free service called Telemarketing Guard. It’s been available since 2007. The system recognizes likely telemarketing calls, including robocalls, and stops them before they're completed.

These suspect callers receive a message that says the number they called does not want telemarketing calls, but you can press 1 to record your name and be announced. If there is no response to the prompt, the call does not go through.

If the caller does press one, the phone rings and the words “Telemarketing Guard” appear on the Caller ID. You can answer the call or ignore it and let it go to voicemail. If it is a telemarketing call, the customer can dial a code that alerts the Telemarketing Guard system.

Yes, Primus is using crowd-sourcing to stop robocalls.

“The decision of who is and who is not a telemarketer is really made by our customers,” explained Matthew Stein, chief technology officer at Primus. “The system doesn’t start out thinking anyone is a telemarketer, but as more people report them, the system itself recognizes that this number is owned by a telemarketer and we’ll start to impede those calls.”

Primus say customer feedback on Telemarketing Guard has been overwhelmingly positive: two-thirds of its customers say they have noticed a “dramatic reduction” in unsolicited telemarketing and robocalls, 87 percent say this is the key reason why they stay with the company.

Adam Senour, a web designer who works from his home in Toronto, said he used to get 5 or 6 telemarketing calls a day. Now, with Telemarketing Guard, that’s down to one every three months. Senour said he is not worried about missing legitimate calls.

Nomorobo about to launch in the U.S.
Relief may soon be available in this country thanks to Aaron Foss, a software designer from Long Island, who figured out another way to block robocalls. Just three months ago, Foss won the FTC’s Robocall Challenge with his Nomorobo

At the Senate subcommittee hearing, Foss announced that he plans to have his prize-winning solution available before the end of the summer. (You can sign up on the Nomorobo website to be notified when the service is available).

“The technology that has allowed these robocallers to send out millions of phone calls for pennies, also allows programmers like myself to block their calls for pennies,” he told NBC News.

The basic Nomorobo service will be free to individual phone customers. Foss hopes to make money by offering premium services – such as a block on political robocalls which are legal on landline phones – and selling to business customers.

Foss readily admits his service won’t be 100 percent effective, but he said it’s time to do something to fight back.

“We have to start making robocallers work harder because there’s nothing out there stopping them,” he said.

At the hearing, Sen. McCaskill said she believes technology developed by the private market would be better than something mandated by the government.

“Hopefully, these companies can be convinced that if they would stop making excuses and try to solve the problem, their customers would be a lot happier,” she said.

Know the law
The FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, bans most commercial robocalls unless the recipient has given the caller advance written permission to call them. The rule does not prohibit non-commercial robocalls, such as surveys or messages for charities and political organizations. (FTC Robocalls homepage)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also has robocall rules that ban most recorded calls to wireless phones and other mobile devices. They’re only allowed for emergency purposes or if the person receiving the call has given prior permission.

If you’ve received what you believe to be an illegal robocall, file a complaint with the FTC. If the robocall came to a mobile device, you should also report it to the FCC.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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