Business Columns & Blogs

Proposed law would help zap robocalls

The Federal Trade Commission received more than 3 million robocall-related complaints last year.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 3 million robocall-related complaints last year. The Detroit Free Press file illustration

You would think phone and cable companies would be doing everything possible to help customers block annoying robocalls. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, did.

But she got a taste of the telecom companies’ indifference recently while stuck at home trying to sleep off a nasty flu.

“Every time I dozed off, the phone would ring,” Speier told me. “And it wasn’t a friend calling. It was a robocall.”

Things got so aggravating, Speier canceled her AT&T landline. The more she thought about it, though, the more she realized that it’s the job of telecom companies, not consumers, to do something about this problem.

“It’s personal to me, and it’s personal to the 221 million people who’ve put their names on the do-not-call list and are tired of getting robocalls all day and all night,” Speier said.

Speier is doing something about it. She introduced the Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones Act, aka the Robocop Act. It would require telecom companies to offer customers free robocall-blocking technology.

Let’s just point out the obvious: It’s pathetic that it would take federal action to make phone and cable companies help consumers deal with a problem that everyone agrees is a royal pain in the you-know-what. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 3 million robocall-related complaints last year.

To date, however, most telecom-industry players have been reluctant to crack down on robocalls, presumably for no better reason than because they don’t like anyone telling them how they should run their networks

Tim Marvin, who heads the End Robocalls campaign for Consumers Union, called the automated sales calls “an epidemic” and blasted phone companies for being “slow to provide their frustrated customers with relief.”

The do-not-call list was supposed to put a stop to unwanted telemarketing. Marketers who violate the list can be fined up to $16,000.

But that’s only if you catch them.

$1.2 billion The amount in mostly unpaid fines that Consumers Union estimates overseas robocallers have racked up from violating the do-not-call list

Many telemarketers – and more than a few scammers – simply stepped up their game with so-called spoofing technology that either hides or misrepresents their identities, such as making it look like a call is from the local police department. This makes it difficult if not impossible for consumers to report them to the Federal Trade Commission.

Many marketers and con artists also moved abroad, beyond the reach of American authorities. Consumers Union estimates that overseas robocallers have racked up more than $1.2 billion in mostly unpaid fines from violating the do-not-call list.

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy for the Consumer Federation of America, said new safeguards are needed “to prevent these fraudulent and abusive sales calls.”

Speier said it’s technically possible for telecom companies to spot and block most robocalls. The firms know which numbers are causing trouble, she said.

Beyond that, she said telecom providers have a responsibility to allow customers to use free services such as Nomorobo, PrivacyStar and Truecaller. Each uses blacklists of banned numbers to stop robocalls from getting through.

These services aren’t perfect. Smart robocallers still can get around them. But they can put a big dent in the volume of calls now getting through.

Speier’s bill would direct the Federal Communications Commission to make sure telecom customers have access to such services, if desired.

I asked AT&T and Verizon Communications to comment on the legislation and to explain why they deny customers access to call-blocking technology. Neither company responded.

On the other hand, props to Time Warner Cable, which has announced that its voice customers can now sign up for Nomorobo.

“With robocalls being the largest category of complaints at the Federal Communications Commission, we want to do everything we can to empower our customers to take control over the calls that come into their home,” said Jeff Lindsay, general manager of the cable giant’s phone service.

If other telecom companies aren’t ready to follow suit, Congress should rally behind Speier’s bill to provide some much-needed regulatory arm twisting.

David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. He answers consumer questions. Contact him: david.lazarus@latimes.com or @Davidlaz. Read more by Lazarus at fblinks.com/laz.

  Comments