Bamboozled: Hey robocalls: Your days can soon be numbered

When complaining about telemarketers and robocalls, Bamboozled readers regularly ask why the phone companies haven’t done anything to stop such calls.

An answer may be on the way, thanks in part to the actions of 45 state attorneys general.

As a side note, New Jersey Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman hasn’t joined the fight. But it’s not because he doesn’t?????????????????? support the effort to block such calls. More on that in a moment.

The 45 attorneys general sent a letter last week to five major telephone companies — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and CenturyLink — urging them to offer call-blocking technology to their customers.

In the letter, the attorneys general said their offices are on the front lines of consumer protection for those harassed by unwanted and unwelcome robocalls, but that’s not enough.

They want technology to help.

“Our enforcement efforts alone cannot stop the problem,” the letter said. “The better solution is to stop intrusive calls before they ever reach the consumer.”

This request dates back several years, but back then, the carriers said they couldn’t offer such services because it may violate federal law.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing in July 2013, reps from two industry associations said “legal barriers” prevent carriers from using the call-blocking technology.

So the attorneys general went to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in September 2014, asking the agency for an official opinion on what the phone companies can and cannot do.

In essence, they asked: Can the phone companies legally offer call-blocking technology to their customers?

The answer came in June, and it was good news for annoyed consumers.

“…the FCC responded, formally adopting a rule clarification, clearly stating that federal law does not prohibit telecommunication service providers from offering, upon a customer’s request, services intended to block unwanted calls,” the letter said.

The attorneys general said this clarification should remove any doubt about the legal authority of phone companies “to empower consumers by providing call-blocking technology to help stop robocalls, scam text messages and unwanted telemarketing calls.”

The letter said call-blocking technology already exists, and it specifically named Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP phone service through NoMoRobo.com, and Call Control for Android cell phones.

So, the letter said, wireless carriers should move swiftly to implement and inform consumers of these options.kk

Seems like a slam dunk, so we wanted to know why New Jersey’s Hoffman didn’t sign the letter.

It was because of those two product mentions, a spokesman said.

“While we support the policy espoused in the multi-state letter, we were not comfortable signing on because it included reference to two particular call-blocking products, and we were concerned the letter might be taken as an endorsement of these particular products,” spokesman Leland Moore said.

Okay, fair enough.

But we need to note that both of those products are free to consumers.

IS IT THAT SIMPLE?

We reached out to the FCC to better understand its decision.

The agency said the FCC “clarified that telephone companies are free to offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers, or work with third parties who want to offer such services.”

“The Commission thus paves the way for market-based solutions that allow consumers to choose whether to block unwanted calls from certain categories of callers and, if so, how to block them (e.g., complete block, direct the call to voice mail, etc.),” a spokesman said in an email.

Bamboozled reached out to the phone carriers to get their responses to the plea from the attorneys general.

Verizon said the company has previously reached out to the National Association of Attorneys General to explore coordinating on consumer education and better enforcement of anti-robocall laws.

The company hasn’t yet responded to the letter from the attorneys general, but it will soon, said the spokesman, Lee Gierczynski.

Gierczynski that while some are touting the FCC’s recent order as “untying” the hands of telephone companies in terms of blocking technology, it’s not that simple. He said Verizon has always been cautious about blocking suspicious calls on a “real-time” basis because of potential unintended consequences.

“Currently there is no technology that eliminates the risk of accidentally blocking legitimate robocalls, including public safety announcements, severe weather alerts, and school closing messages,” he said.

Existing blocking services compile ‘blacklists’ of suspicious phone numbers that they block, but robocallers can easily work around those lists by changing the Caller ID information — known as spoofing — so it looks like the calls are from a different number, Gierczynski said.

He said every year Verizon works with thousands of innocent customers whose legitimate numbers are spoofed by scammers, leaving them to field additional unwanted calls from others who have been called by the scammers.

Smartphone customers can use apps that block unwanted calls, Gierczynski said, noting that a quick search of Google Play and the App Store shows dozens of free call-blocking apps.

Landline customers can use devices that block unwanted calls. Gierczynski mentioned two: Sentry’s Dual Mode Call Blocker and HQTelecom’s T-Lock Call Blocker.

Verizon said it offers tools such as the free “Anonymous Call Rejection” feature, and that its digital voice customers can use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services with a feature to block up to 100 unwanted phone numbers, he said. Plus, these customers can use the “simultaneous ring” feature that’s used with NoMoRobo.

Verizon says it’s working behind the scenes by “investigating suspicious call patterns coming from other companies’ networks and by working with other carriers to shut down illegal robocall operations.”

CenturyLink said it’s in the process of responding to the letter, and it shares consumer frustration about these calls. The company said it provides several tools to help reduce the recurrence of unwanted calls.

In New Jersey, CenturyLink customers can purchase “selective call rejection” to block unwanted calls, plus it offers other blocking products. There’s a fee, and customers can learn more at the company web site.

“We will continue to work with our industry colleagues to identify and address the sources of illegal robocalls, which pose an annoyance to consumers, facilitate telephone-based fraud and burden our nation’s telecommunications networks,” spokeswoman Linda Johnson said.

T-mobile said customers should be empowered with the tools they need to block unwanted robocalls. It says it’s exploring options to offer customers in the future.

It suggests consumers who want to block unwanted calls today should check the recommendation from CTIA.

Sprint didn’t return our messages, and AT&T referred us to U.S. Telecom Assoc., an industry trade group.

U.S. Telecom pointed us to a press release, which said it’s on board with the request from the attorneys general, and said its members offer many call-blocking solutions.

So what does this all mean to you, dear reader?

Perhaps, coming to a phone carrier near you, you’ll have new offerings to protect your phone line from unwanted callers.

We’ll keep our ears out for you.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.